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Mom, I want what the other kids eat for lunch – a review of Riceboy Sleeps

A still from the film Riceboy Sleeps: a Korean-Canadian mother and her young son read a book together on the couch of their home.
Riceboy Sleeps is an immigrant story, a family drama, and what it means to "become Canadian."

Mom, I want what the other kids eat for lunch.

What seems like a simple request feels devastating as it unfolds on the screen, watching the mother’s face fall even as she agrees. I am instantly thrown back to my eight-year-old self, asking the same thing of my own mom. I wonder now if she wore the same expression as So-young, the main character of the award-winning family drama Riceboy Sleeps, did.

Immigrating to Canada is a new start, a hopeful beginning, a step towards a better life. It is also leaving behind a life, giving up the past, and starting over. In the film, there aren’t many ties keeping the mother and son in Korea, so in a way the move might have been a breath of fresh air. But starting from scratch in a new country is no easy feat.

The film is inspired by the director’s life and relationship with his own mother. Anthony Shim spent part of his childhood in Coquitlam, where a Korean community has slowly and surely settled. We can see painfully real memories of the immigrant experience as the son, Dong-hyun (played by Dohyun Noel Hwang and Ethan Hwang), adjusts to a new language and a new environment where his classmates and neighbours look nothing like him.

I also immigrated to Canada at a young age, and these scenes moved me deeply. I remember sitting down with my parents, a list of english names before me, and having to make a choice. On the one hand, it allowed me to make friends at school. On the other hand, it’s not until years later that I realized I’d packed away a part of myself and left it to collect dust. How do you reclaim something you readily gave up?

It is the first step to assimilation: attaching your identity to strange syllables and vowels so teachers can pronounce them more easily.

Assimilation does not always feel violent. Often, Shim muses, when Asian immigrants land, they want to acclimate. It is a way of protecting themselves, knowing they will always be perceived as foreigners first, with their black hair and brown eyes. They might not be able to prevent the spill of their accented english, but they can make sure their child’s speech matches the voices on the radio.

“They think, ‘I will never be a Canadian parent, I will never fit in,’” Shim says in an interview with Pancouver, on the topic of first-generation immigrants. “‘But maybe my child can.’”

This film is very much a tribute to his mother, and all the immigrant parents that made the hard choice of uprooting their entire life for their children. As a child, we never really understand the sacrifices our parents make. We see little Dong-hyun running through the carpeted hall of their home while So-young vacuums around him; we see teenage Dong-hyun sprawled asleep in his bed as So-young picks up after him. Paired with Choi Seung-yoon’s commanding presence on screen, it is easy to see this mother’s strength, determination, and courage.

What stands out to me, as someone who identifies as an Asian-Canadian woman, is how So-young refuses to be pigeonholed into stereotypes of submissiveness. She refuses to back down to the white men at her workplace when one of them slaps her ass—when no one stands up for her, she stands up for herself. She is not afraid to show her anger and disgust with Dong-hyun’s principal, who might take advantage of her awkward english and expect her to quietly acquiesce. Perhaps because she is well aware that, as a single mother and a new immigrant, there is no one else in their corner.

Her willingness to speak up for herself and her son reflects the director’s intent in portraying Korean women with justice and honesty. “I wanted to be part of changing what North American people’s view of Korean women was,” says Shim.

Some people might not enjoy immigrant stories because they’re full of hardships and trauma. Riceboy Sleeps gracefully balances the heartache of things lost in translation and the gentle triumph of persevering.

Take how the film shows the struggle of holding onto cultural identity and adapting to life as a “Canadian”. When we meet Dong-hyun as a teenager, he is putting in coloured contacts to go with his dyed blond hair. Yet he converses with his mother in english and Korean, switching between the two with a fluidity that is second nature.

The duality of language, food, and customs is a conflict immigrants confront every day. You can set down roots in this new place, but can you forgive yourself for the changes you made to do so?

Even as So-young is asking her son to take on an english name, she tells him it’s okay if he doesn’t choose one; if he wants to remain Dong-hyun, that’s okay with her. Seeing this moment in the trailer, even before I had the context of the film, gave me a lump in my throat. My non-english name still remains my legal name, but even my family rarely calls me that anymore. So-young calls her son by both names, the english name outside, the Korean name at home. Perhaps this is her way of holding onto the familiar—and why she never chose an english name for herself.

To me, that’s where this film really succeeds: the warmth and love that persists between this mother and son amidst the difficult and confusing battle of becoming Canadian.

Riceboy Sleeps was shot mainly in Greater Vancouver, with some scenes in South Korea.

I think I never thanked my mom for making me those sandwiches. Because it was never about the sandwich—not even when, in later years, my non-Asian classmates flaunted their fried rice and dumplings while I struggled to swallow around Wonder bread and ham stuck together by melted Kraft singles. It was about a dream for a better future, a choice made in hopes of more choices to be made available.

Riceboy Sleeps is not a grand story about overcoming racism. It’s not a sobfest—even if I personally cried the whole way through it. In the director’s own words, it’s a story about “a mother and son searching for a home.” And sometimes, home is not a physical place, and identity is not meant to be packed into a lunchbox.

 

Here’s one piece of dialogue from the film that I’ll leave you with:

The son asks, “Should we go back?”
To which the mother replies, “We can’t.”

 

Riceboy Sleeps is now screening at VIFF Centre and Fifth Avenue Cinemas.

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becky tu

becky tu

becky (she/her) is a writer invested in telling stories that resonate with people in all corners of the world. She welcomes everyone to share their stories with Pancouver.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.