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‘Riceboy Sleeps’ sparks frenzy of activity for B.C. writer-director Anthony Shim

Buzz-worthy B.C.-set immigrant drama finally set for wide cinema release
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Director Anthony Shim and actress Choi Seung-yoon, of the film “Riceboy Sleeps,” are photographed in Toronto on Friday, September 9, 2022. After its September premiere, the mother-son film collected a slew of festival awards. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Lupul

There’s been nothing tranquil about the B.C.-set immigrant drama “Riceboy Sleeps” since its buzz-laden debut at Toronto International Film Festival last year.

After its September premiere, the mother-son film collected a slew of festival awards, including $25,000 prizes at TIFF and the Windsor International Film Festival, the title of best Canadian film at the Vancouver International Film Festival and an audience prize at the Busan International Film Festival.

Last week, “Riceboy Sleeps” was declared best Canadian feature by the Toronto Film Critics Association, an annual honour that comes with a $100,000 prize.

Now, writer-director Anthony Shim says he’s excited to finally put the family drama before general audiences as the movie opens in theatres March 17.

The staggered rollout across Canada includes Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver, with future release plans in Korea, Singapore and the United States.

Shim notes the film will test the public’s appetite for cinema now that the pandemic seems to have waned.

“It feels like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a real movie.’ The trailer is playing at Cineplex now so, even that idea is like, ‘OK, this is real. It’s not just a festival movie,’” says Shim.

“I hope people will see it but the movie theatre business is a tough one right now. I’m trying to stay optimistic but trying to not have unrealistic expectations for it.”

Shim says critical and industry acclaim have already ushered in new creative partnerships and projects, including an offer to direct an episode of the Showtime drama “The Chi.”

Reached recently in Chicago where the show films, he says “The Chi” producers caught the film at TIFF and were so impressed they tapped him for episode four of the upcoming sixth season.

“There was so much buzz around the film…. I’ve met with a lot of other companies as well, since then,” Shim says of the whirlwind that followed TIFF.

“They were one of the companies that really stood out to me, the type of people that I want to be working with in the future,” he said of the Lena Waithe-created drama that follows residents of the South Side of Chicago.

While he doesn’t specifically aspire to episodic work, Shim says he welcomes the experience since he may want to develop his own limited series or TV project one day.

Mostly he’s keen to bring to life his own written work.Invariably these stories are about families and the complex dynamics that can both bind and strain kin.

While not autobiographical, he says “Riceboy Sleeps” draws on much of his experience as an immigrant growing up in small-town British Columbia.

It stars newcomer Choi Seung-yoon as a South Korean widow struggling to establish a new life in 1990s Canada with her son, played early in the film by child actor Dohyun Noel Hwang and later by teen actor Ethan Hwang.

Shim says the hardest part of casting was finding quasi-bilingual actors who had the right mix of Korean and English language proficiency.

“That balance was so important…. Certain actors were great, looked perfect for the part, but their Korean was not good enough,” he says.

They looked at “hundreds of people” and turned to a Korean casting director to find Seung-yoon – a dancer with very little acting experience who nevertheless nailed the role of a headstrong mother bewildered by the casual but constant racism she encounters.

“It was her first audition ever. And just the way she held herself, the way she spoke, it was just so blatantly perfect,” says Shim.

Seung-yoon says she submitted a tape to gain experience with auditions, and initially feared actually getting the part. During an interview at TIFF, she says she was happy she was “brave enough to take this job.”

“This role of So-young is so demanding. But somehow, when I first read the script, So-young came so naturally to me. I could resonate with her life and her emotion and her choice,” Seung-yoon says.

“She never avoids her truth of life. That kind of braveness I like.”

Seung-yoon says her ballet background came in handy for the shoot. Most scenes employed a single shot, requiring a form of choreography she understood innately.

“It’s not only about dialogue, it’s about the whole body movement,” she says.

Shim says he’s already turned his attention to his next feature — an adaptation of a novel that he connected with “on a very deep level” but would not reveal just yet.

“The novel that I’m speaking very vaguely about, it felt like a continuation of some of the questions and ideas that I was exploring with ‘Riceboy Sleeps,’” he says.

“I’ve also got a script that I’ve been writing myself for a while. It’s an original screenplay that I’d like to make at some point as well.

“But yeah, it’s been tough to find time to write over the last few months.”

—Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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