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Vancouver filmmaker Anthony Shim honours his mother through writing and directing Riceboy Sleeps

Anthony Shim by Lawrence Cortez cropped
Anthony Shim's Riceboy Sleeps received six nominations for Canadian Screen Awards. Photo by Lawrence Cortez (@lawrencejcortez).

There’s a memorable scene early in Riceboy Sleeps, by Vancouver director and screenwriter Anthony Shim (심명보).

A blue-collar factory worker slaps the ass of a Korean single mother, So-Young, played by Choi Seung-yoon (최승윤). So-Young immediately confronts the much larger man.

“If you touch me again, I will kill you,” she boldly declares.

He responds by telling her to take it easy, but So-Young won’t be brushed off.

“You don’t touch me! Understand?” she firmly declares.

The message is clear—this is a confident and assertive woman.

Over Zoom, Shim tells Pancouver that growing up on Vancouver Island and in Coquitlam, he saw so many unrealistic depictions of Asian woman in TV and movies. They were either submissive, super-human, or prostitutes. So, he consciously created a lead character to dispel those stereotypes.

“I wanted to be part of changing that narrative and that image,” Shim says.

Riceboy Sleeps earned six Canadian Screen Awards nominations: best motion picture; performance in a leading role; achievement in direction, cinematography, and editing; and original screenplay

In addition, Shim’s second film has racked up a pile of other honours. They include a $100,000 cash prize as the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association. That was followed by the audience award at the Glasgow Film Festival.

“Every one of them feels just like a miracle, because it’s different people,” Shim says. “I never imagined that people in Scotland would respond to this film in the way that they have.”

On Friday (March 17), it will begin a Vancouver theatrical run at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas.

Photo by Katrin Braga.
Choi Seung-yoon has won rave reviews for her performance as the single mother So-Young in Riceboy Sleeps. Photo by Katrin Braga.

Shim tries to do justice to his mom

Shim describes Riceboy Sleeps as “a story of a mother and son searching for a home”. They settle in Coquitlam, where the young boy, Dong-hyun, encounters racism in school. As a teen, he juggles a bicultural existence, surrounded by white friends but also deeply curious about his Korean roots. The young boy is played by Doh-hyun Noel Wang and the teenager is played by Ethan Hwang.

“The relationship between the mother and son is largely inspired by my relationship with my mom,” the 36-year-old director says.

It’s a deeply emotional film, depicting various challenges faced by an immigrant single mother who remains strong in the face of adversity.

“If I get to create a character based on my mom, I want to make sure it does her justice,” Shim says. “She can go watch it and go, ‘That’s good; that’s accurate; that’s honest.’ ”

The movie accurately depicts how Shim received his English name, as well as his teenage struggles in coming to terms with his identity. Layered on top are dramatized situations, characters, and conflicts, most of which were filmed in the Vancouver area.

He reveals that his mother reads all of his scripts, including this one. And he believes that she was initially caught-off guard by Riceboy Sleeps. The story and dialogue are not an exact replication of her life.

“I think when she saw the film, it was a very different experience for her,” Shim adds.

His mom’s friends attended a screening at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, where Riceboy Sleeps won the Best Canadian Feature award. According to Shim, these family friends were incredibly proud of him.

One of them revealed that she felt heartbroken thinking of the old days when the kids were little and life was so hard.

“And I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s what the movie is.’ But it seemed like she was so surprised,” Shim recalls.

Watch the trailer for Riceboy Sleeps.

Music reinforces the mood

Cinematographer Christopher Lew shot many scenes in one continuous take. This enabled Shim to seamlessly move through different locations, time periods, and even continents.

The director acknowledges that his first cut was far too long. And the only way to trim it was by removing entire sections.

It meant that Shim had to jettison another storyline involving the teenage character and his friends, even though he really liked how it turned out. But in the end, he explains, everyone agreed that Riceboy Sleeps is a film about a boy and his mother. As a result, anything deviating from that storyline had to go.

“That was sad, but ultimately, it was the best,” Shim says.

In addition to the cinematography, the film relies on compositions by Andrew Yong Hoon Lee to reinforce the mood. Shim reveals that he began listening to Lee’s music online on the recommendation of the sound designer.

“It became sort of the soundtrack of the film at the writing stage,” he says.

Shim reached out to Lee, who is a musical artist without grand ambitions of composing scores for movies. They spoke for months about everything but music. That included their identities as male Korean Canadians, their relationship to South Korea, parents, racism, and being a husband and father.

“It was obvious that we understood and experienced very similar things and wanted to express very similar feelings and emotions and themes through our respective medium,” Shim says. “So we thought, ‘Okay, let’s do this and let’s see what we can come up with.’ ”

Shim describes Lee’s compositions as having a certain kind of Korean quality that he was seeking. However, he emphasizes that it’s not Korean music.

“I was looking for something that was wholly original in that sense,” Shim adds.

Riceboy Sleeps
Dohyun Noel Hwang is one of two actors who plays Dong-Hyun in Riceboy Sleeps.

Language rule kept film out of Oscar contention

In addition, Shim wanted these compositions in his hands while he was still editing so he could cut the scenes to the music.

“Every single track he sent my way worked,” Shim says.

In fact, like the cinematography, he actually ended up with a surplus of good music, which gave him plenty of options.

The film includes some Korean dialogue with English subtitles between the mother and boy, but not as much as Shim originally intended. That’s because when he was making Riceboy Sleeps, a Canadian film would only be eligible for Telefilm financial assistance and tax credits under certain circumstances.

That included being at least 50 percent in English, French, or an Indigenous language. Since the film was made, the rules have been adjusted.

Consequently, Shim reduced the amount of Korean dialogue between the mother and son, replacing it with much more English. And he doesn’t think that his film suffered in any way as a result of that decision.

However, it prevented him from trying to get it submitted to the Academy Awards in the international feature film category. That’s because these films must have more than 50 percent non-English dialogue.

“So we just automatically were ineligible for that because of that reason,” Shim says. “I don’t think it would have made the film that much better.”

The VIFF Centre is screening Riceboy Sleeps on Friday (March 24), Saturday (March 25), and Monday (March 27). For more information, visit the website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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Pancouver strives to build a more equal and empathetic society by advancing appreciation of visual and performing arts—and cultural communities—through education. Our goal is to elevate awareness about underrepresented artists and the organizations that support them. 

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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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.