Brilliant Canadian Films Reflect our Multicultural Society
Brother & Rice Boy Sleeps
By Marc Glassman
Clement Virgo, director and script based on the book by David Chariandy
Starring: Aaron Pierre (Francis), Lamar Johnson (Michael), Kiana Madeira (Aisha), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Ruth), Lovell Adams-Gray (Jelly)
Rice Boy Sleeps
Anthony Shim, director and script
Starring: Choi Seung-Yoon (So-Young), Ethan Hwang (Dong-Hyun), Dohyun Noel Hwang (Child Dong-Hyun), Anthony Shim (Simon), Hunter Dillon (Harry), Jerina Son (Mi-Sun), Jong-ryoi Choi (Grandpa), Yong-nyeo Lee (Grandma), Kang In Sung (Won-Shik)
I’m a board member of The Toronto Film Critics Association, and while I’ve been away, we’ve recently had our awards gala. Our top two Canadian films are being released in theatres this week. They are our winner, Anthony Shim’s Rice Boy Sleeps, and veteran director Clement Virgo’s Brother. In terms of artistry, excellent performances and emotional resonance, the two are equally top notch. These are films that people will want to see.
Rice Boy Sleeps and Brother are both set in the late 1990s, when Toronto’s multicultural society began to truly take shape. Shim is Korean-Canadian and Virgo, who is older, has Caribbean ancestry. The dramas they’ve created are about members of their own communities, people who came to Canada for a better life but ran into discrimination and difficult economic circumstances in the greater Toronto area.
In both narratives, it’s the mother who emerges as the heroic figure. She’s the one who works at tough, demeaning jobs and still finds time and energy to raise her children. While their kids struggle to adjust to Canadian society, the mothers give them the love and confidence to make it in a country that will always feel alien to them.
Rice Boy Sleeps concentrates on the feisty but motherly figure of So-Young, who is feelingly interpreted by Choi Seung-Yoon. We’re told that her husband has committed suicide in Korea, leaving their child Dong-Hyun an orphan, which gave So-Young a powerful motivation to leave the country. Adjusting to life in Toronto is hard for both. We see Dong-Hyun abandoning his traditional Korean lunch out of embarrassment when school kids make fun of him. Equally hard is So-Young’s fight against sexual and racial harassment in a Toronto factory.
By the time Dong-Hyun is in his teens, things are somewhat better for both him and his mother. So-Young has a strong group of Korean-Canadian female friends and one man, Simon, has developed feelings for her. Dong-Hyun has adjusted to life in the suburbs, and has even dyed his hair yellow. He’s rebellious and has conflicts with his mother, which is typical of all teens. Simon, played extremely well by director Anthony Shim, wants to marry So-Young but just when things are seemingly okay, she receives terrible news that she has a life threatening disease.
Rice Boy Sleeps pivots away from a tale of immigrants to a passionate return to Korea. The last third of the film follows So-Young as she introduces Dong-Hyun to his father’s family of farmers. While he’s embraced by his grandfather and uncle, Dong-Hyun’s demented grandmother wants nothing to do with him and his mother. Still, there’s a real emotional trajectory throughout their journey to Korea, reaching an apex towards the end. Rice Boy Sleeps is a moving drama, one that is filled with compelling performances, and a deservedly sentimental wallop.
Brother is a beautiful-looking film by Clement Virgo and his superb collaborators, who include cinematographer Guy Godfree and production designer Jason Clarke. It’s great to see Virgo back, helming a big screen production, which he does so well. Clement Virgo is one of Canada’s leading film directors and has long deserved acknowledgement for such tough-minded but ravishing productions as Rude and Poor Boy’s Game.
Virgo has evoked 1990s Scarborough wonderfully well in Brother. It’s a neighbourhood filled with poverty and violence but also with families and respect. Francis and Michael are Trinidad-Canadian brothers raised by their mother, Ruth, to love each other and try to make their lives better than hers. Francis, played by the charismatic Aaron Pierre, is the big athletic elder of the two boys while Michael, well performed by Lamar Johnson, is the classic smaller, more poetic younger one. The escape for the two of them and their mother is the near-by Rouge Valley, filled with forests, wetlands and the river. There, they can be at peace with a world that doesn’t terrify and anger them.
As a young man, Michael develops an emotional bond with Aisha, a beautiful, smart local girl, who, like him, is finding it hard to negotiate life in Scarborough. Their relationship is passionate but unresolved and is complicated by the presence of Francis in their lives.
Far worse for Francis is the way his own life goes. His dreams of escape are thwarted and he becomes trapped in their neighbourhood. Virgo’s film shows how he becomes so angry that a brutal ending almost feels inevitable. Given the racism that exists here, it seems obvious that the police will be involved in what becomes a tragedy.
Brother and Rice Boy Sleeps are films of passion, love and loss. They illuminate the lives of new immigrants to Canada and how they played out a generation ago. That such films are being made now shows that their stories are just as relevant as they were then. I urge you to see both of them.
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