Anthony Shim on the Personal Awakening of “Riceboy Sleeps”

“After eating jeogtal, this sandwich is hard to eat,” So-Young (Choi Seung-yoon) says to her new co-worker Mi-Sun (Jerina Son) in “Riceboy Sleeps,” eager to put away the hastily made ham on Wonder Bread that she had packed before work when realizing she was in the company of a fellow Korean immigrant. Thanks to a recent visit by Mi-Sun’s mother-in-law to rural Canada, the salty seafood reawakens the senses when So-Young hasn’t had the banchan staple in forever, having to start a new life somewhere after her husband died and she had to support herself and her young son Dong-Hyun (played by Dohyun Noel Hwang as a child and Ethan Hwang as a teen) and ending up in the great white north. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but somehow it seems like an even harder one for Dong-Hyun, who is mercilessly teased for bringing kimbap to school for lunch and even encouraged to change his name to an easier name to pronounce by his first grade teacher, with his first choice of Michael Jordan not flying with his mother — he eventually settles for David.

This last part really happened to writer/director Anthony Shim, who also would’ve gone by Bart Simpson if he had any say in the matter at the time, but he makes a name for himself in more way than one with his extraordinary second feature, recalling his youth in the 1990s where he never felt entirely at home in Canada but not exactly connected to Korea either when his mother rarely spoke about it. Still, one can tell he was raised right when “Riceboy Sleeps” is no navel gazing lament, instead tenderly recognizing how difficult it was for both himself and his mother to acclimate as they worked through grief they couldn’t always understand after losing their patriarch and weighing how much of their native culture to hold onto when it was connected to pain while it could be of comfort when so much else seems foreign to them.

While that chasm may have once seemed insurmountable, Shim is able to close the gap cinematically, engineering a shoot that cuts across continents and decades, gradually expanding the scope of not only the picture itself which slyly changes aspect ratios as Dong-Hyun gets older but the perspective one has of the immigrant experience, presented in all its dimension as there may be a struggle for acceptance in a new community but the beauty of self-acceptance rises to the fore. After winning the Platform Prize at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, “Riceboy Sleeps” has made its way to the U.S. on VOD and digital and Shim graciously took the time to talk about how he brought his real family into the production and cast such a close-knit onion screen, as well as how he could infuse emotions into the camerawork and make a more serious film than he initially intended.

When there’s a fair bit of autobiography in this, how much of that you want to share with you actors versus allowing them to create their own characters?

It’s inspired and based on a lot of my own personal experiences because I always do try to start from a place that is personal to me, that is honest. When I first began, it started out as a film about a young teenage boy, but then as time went on — all the way to shooting and editing the film too — it just became so obvious that the magic is in that relationship [with his mother], so we tried to really focus in on that. And as time went on, it really did become about telling the best story that can capture the themes and the message that I was hoping to convey. There was a certain point where where I no longer thought about it as a film about my own life and then especially once I cast the roles, the actors were so perfect for those parts and they connected to it on such a deeply personal level that it really did feel like this was just as much their story as it was mine, so I fully let them run with it. I wrote words on a page, but at the end of the day, they brought these words to life and turned them into these fully formed, multidimensional human beings.

We’ve all grown to love each other so much and it was just incredible how quickly Choi Seung-yoon and the two boys connected, and in different ways as well. There was such an organic love and a parent-child dynamic about them that grew and I encouraged them to spend a lot of time together. I never wanted to manipulate their relationship. We all spent time together as a unit and I was never trying to make them find this dynamic, but that it was just allowing them to just be themselves and me just being able to recognize what’s going on and what’s really real between them and and try to feel what’s already there and capture it on film.

The camera isn’t exactly an impartial observer in all this – it feels like another character in what it chooses to focus on and how the film is framed. How did that style come about?

That was something that came out of many, many conversations between my [cinematographer] Chris [Lew] and I and it started from the decision of having the opening narration told from the deceased father and it’s as though the rest of the film visually is being told from his perspective and we’d seen a lot of other films that we used as references. Ultimately, we landed on using a gimbal and having the camera being constant motion and really [have] a life of its own. And the camera was representing this specific entity that we wanted to have a specific relationship to the subjects, so it’s moving on its own accord, based on its own emotional reaction to the moment and to the people or the person that it’s looking at. So all of the decisions that we made in the camera placement and movement, the editing or the lack of editing, they weren’t arbitrary, but all rooted from this specific choice and once we made that choice, that informed everything. Then it just ultimately came down to the execution of it and how can we pull this off in a way that it feels watchable since we can’t change the pace of the movie [in editing]. That’s all going to be on the day, so [it became a question of] how do we prepare and shoot in a way that we can then allow the audience to watch it in real time and not be bored by it.

Clearly a lot of love went into it, as well as the production design of the house. What was it like finding that location?

It was tough to find a house that hadn’t been renovated and have still retained that feel and look [with] the old cabinets and stove tops and carpets. Anyone who grew up at that time in Vancouver knows that layout. And we got lucky [with] a classic Vancouver house that had so much character and brought so much to the table naturally. We just had to build on what was already there. We used a lot of the same furniture from my childhood and luckily, my mom still had them kicking around, so we used a lot of that. And we had an incredible art department, just trying to make it feel as lived in as possible. Because the layout of the home, it allowed for a lot of variety in the ways of being able to frame scenes so that didn’t feel too redundant. A good chunk of the movie shot in that one house, so we had to be really creative about where the scenes were taking place, which angle we were shooting them from and how the camera was moving. If that house hadn’t been what it was, it could have been a really tough shoot.

Besides your mother’s contributions to the production, I understand your sister actually was involved in preparing the food for the movie. What was it like to actually involve them in the making of this?

My family has always been pretty involved in things I do, so it wasn’t that crazy. My sister did all the food because she she knows she grew up eating that food, so she knew exactly what kind of food should be on that table and she was pregnant at the time, so she had to take time off from work [anyway] and [could] be there on set with us and be involved. And I know it was fun for her, but also kind of weird at times, just because she was going, “Oh my God, this feels like our childhood.” And for all the [scenes in] Korea, my mom was there and the town that we shot in is actually where my mom’s father and my grandpa was born and raised, so a lot of my relatives still live there in that neighborhood. Our catering was done by my mom and my uncle and my cousins, so it was a real family affair in that sense and it just felt so appropriate, creating that family-like atmosphere for this film. This a film about family, and I think that really contributed to creating that real atmosphere for the actors to feel that sense of family on set because it really was existing.

Is it true this was more or less shot chronologically as well?

I find it so important to try and shoot as much of it in sequence as possible. Obviously we couldn’t do it exactly because of our locations and the limited amount of time that we had but shooting as much of it in order [as we could] allows the actors to live that life and build those experiences and all of that adds up to help color and inform the scenes they perform later on in the film. For example, we shot all the Canada stuff and a month later we shot all the Korea stuff and in that time going by, the actors had built such a real relationship and so much history together as a unit that it really did feel like by the time that we got to Korea, they were so comfortable and locked into their relationship that my job as a director was almost finished by that point. It was really just giving them their basic directions and allowing them to just be in that space and time.

What’s it been like getting this out into the world?

I’m still processing it all. I try to take a moment here and there to just reflect on what’s been going on and how this is all unfolded and really the main feeling is so much gratitude. I feel so grateful to this film for all that it’s given to me, both personally and professionally. I’ve been traveling and promoting this film since last August and I never thought I would be talking about this for this long and I feel grateful that there are still people in different areas of the world that are interested in seeing this film and talking about it. I do feel so indebted to the story in this film that I feel it is my responsibility and duty to continue to talk about it to those who care to talk about it.

“Riceboy Sleeps” is now available on Redbox and DirecTV.

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