Hollywood directors routinely capture on a movie set extra camera footage and angles, or “coverage,” to later give them options in the edit suite.
Not Anthony Shim, director of Riceboy Sleeps. He avoided shooting coverage when his single camera rolled on the set for his Korean and English language immigrant drama having its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
“We didn’t shoot any coverage. That was the scariest thing,” Shim told about he and director of photography Christopher Lew’s single camera going instead for one-take, choreographed and continuous wide camera shots that cover all the dialogue and visuals in a scene.
In the hands of a master director, such as Martin Scorsese and his opening Copa shot in Goodfellas, minimal camera coverage could be the making of cinematic legend. But for a second feature director like Shim, the one-take camera shot is fraught with peril.
“There is a reason people shoot coverage and edit a scene together because it allows you to control pacing, have flexibility and discover nuances in the edit process,” he argues. But Shim chose against emotionally manipulating the audience for his feature about a South Korean mother and son who struggle to adjust to a new life in 1990s Canada and close a rift between them.
“I really wanted the viewers to be able to experience a story and watch these characters from a very observational point of view … and form their own feelings and opinions about them,” Shim insisted of what becomes an intense character examination.
That’s in part because Riceboy Sleeps is part of a new movement in Canadian immigrant dramas that foregrounds new arrivals to Canada and their families from around the world.
Shim’s drama shot in Vancouver places its main Korean characters — such as So-Young, a Korean mother played by veteran-dancer-turned-first-time actress Choi Seung-yoon, as she raises her son Dong-hyun, played as a child by Dohyun Noel Hwang and as a 15-year-old by Ethan Hwang — to show how they’re making their way, if uneasily, in Canada amid a dominant white culture.
“In the 1990s portion of the film, oftentimes I frame it so the Korean characters are in the background, and the Caucasian characters are in the foreground and are very dominating with the voices, their faces, their bodies, often times blocking the protagonist,” Shim said.
“And once we get to 1999, I started the reverse and start to dominate the frame with the Korean protagonists and supporting characters who are ethnically diverse,” Shim, who also appears in Riceboy Sleeps in the role of Simon, added.
He insists Korean characters having to grow into their skin as hyphenated citizens mirrored his own childhood where, having come as an 8-year-old along with his family from South Korea to Vancouver in the early 1990s, he eventually overcame shyness by becoming a movie director.
“That was the reality of how I experienced the 1990s in my childhood,” Shim recalled. “I always felt like my family and Korean people we were around were always in the background, we were always tucked away and sometimes voluntarily hiding to avoid feeling awkward or uncomfortable.”
The Riceboy Sleeps director bristled at the suggestion that the current slate of Canadian immigrant dramas at the Toronto Film Festival like Clement Virgo’s Brother, Antoine Bourges’ Concrete Valley and Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s debut feature When Morning Comes, represent a fad that will come and go.
Instead, Shim says they and other directors from under-represented communities who, like him, came to Canada as children are embracing the right to pick up a camera and make their own films about their immigrant experience, just as those descended from European emigrants did so for generations.
“For the first time, there are people who are able to have a voice in these industries … So it’s important for filmmakers of color to tell honest, good stories and to tell them well,” Shim added.
The Toronto Film Festival runs through to Sept. 18.