By JULIA COOPER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Meditation Park is a big movie about a tiny woman.
Written and directed by Canadian indie filmmaker Mina Shum, the new drama follows a Chinese immigrant grandma named Maria who is stunned to discover her husband's infidelity.
The reassuring idyll of her 40-year marriage breaks, and she sets out to discover what more she might want from this life. With an epic score and lush, lingering camera work, it's a self-assured film - confident, a little heartbreaking and very funny.
Immigrant stories don't often get the Oscar-baiting budgets of Hollywood, but that didn't stop Shum from making hers look like it did. In an interview during this past fall's Toronto International Film Festival, Shum said her lead character deserved Champagne treatment despite the film's beer budget. "I wanted to make a Marvel movie about Maria," Shum says, complete with "beautiful production design, wonderful shots, big production value and, yet, 18 days and limited resources."
"There are a lot of films where it's like, 'Okay, it's the marginalized hero, so I'm just going to be over here with my low-budget camera,' " adds the director, who opted to translate the rich hues of Maria's inner life with equally capacious cinematography.
Maria, played with total charm by Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), is the still point of her family's turning world, although she rarely gets the credit for being so. Puttering around her Vancouver home, cooking and cleaning, she waits on her husband (Tzi Ma, of Arrival) and tries to please her grown daughter - Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy) in the role of Ava. When Maria fishes a lacy thong, decidedly not hers, out of her husband's pants pocket, she begins to question her four decades of sacrifice.
After the death of her own father nine years ago, Shum watched as her mother "blossomed in a different way," suddenly her own person without children or a husband to tend to.
"There's something about the lingering history of the patriarch I thought was interesting," she says.
The charisma and delight of Meditation Park builds slowly as the viewer acclimatizes to Maria's shy and gentle rhythms. Although she initially takes the stereotypical shape of a doting immigrant mom and wife, her character doesn't remain stuck there.
"Our understanding of what a Chinese immigrant woman would be is exactly what we see at the beginning of the film," Shum says. "Then, it gets broken down, and so our expectations as an audience get turned on their head - and then we're off to the races. If we can identify her as a hero, then can't we all be heroes?" It was at TIFF in 1994 where Shum made her directorial debut with Double Happiness - another story of immigrant family life, which cast Oh in the actor's first lead role. Oh then appeared in Shum's Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity (2002) and happily signed on for this third project.
"It's funny because when I was going on the press tour with Double Happiness, I was always saying, 'I'm curious what I'm going to be making in 20 years,' so here we are," Shum says with a smile.
The difference between then and now? "We're all more experienced. That's definitely what I noticed. Everybody. Instead of needing a second take because of something, we worked it out before the first take happened." In addition to various short films and television credits, Shum also directed the feature Drive, She Said (1997) and a National Film Board documentary about the Sir George Williams affair called Ninth Floor (2015).
Shum and the cast got a brief window for rehearsals before filming and they used the time to "improvise around the movie."
They "never looked at the script when rehearsing," which is a process that Shum prefers, and instead they developed the family dynamics that would come to animate the film. The cast of Meditation Park have an undeniable chemistry that makes their kinship all the more believable - but it helps that they have history.
"Tzi Ma and Sandra worked together on Grey's Anatomy," Shum explains, and "Tzi had a crush on Pei-Pei when she was younger." Everyone's impressive reputation preceded them, and the actors shared "a real desire to tell this story." When Shum flew to Shanghai two years before filming to meet Pei-Pei in person, the actor told her she'd never seen a story quite like this one before, and she was thrilled at its prospect.
Shum was born in Hong Kong and came to Vancouver with her family as a young child. The story of Meditation Park is fiction, but its themes resonate with the first generation of Chinese immigrant women that Shum knows. "In Chinese culture, we had concubines in the old days with lords and emperors, and there's always been this, 'he might have a girlfriend,' thing," Shum explains.
"Like, my mother always said to me that the best thing my father did was never cheat. That was the most important thing. Not that he raised a family, but that he stayed."
Astute to both generational and cultural differences, Shum adds: "I mean infidelity happens everywhere, but if it happened to you or me, we'd talk-therapy it out, we'd get a divorce, we'd Tinder date, we'd find a new boyfriend! You know? There's so much empowerment for the women in my world, in my generation, that it's almost shocking to know that someone would feel so powerless."
There was something else Shum's mother said to her that the director credits as the script's initial spark. "She said to me in Cantonese about a friend that 'the cat has got a new fish,' and I didn't know what we were talking about," Shum says. When her mom explained that "so-and-so has got a new lover," Shum delighted in the peculiar euphemism. "You call it a 'cat has got a new fish?' Oh my god, I love being Chinese, I love the Cantonese language, I love Chinese women. And then the whole story came to me."
As for the film's title, it refers to the neighbourhood park that separates Maria from, and later connects her to, the community. A motley crew indeed, Maria's neighbours are a gaggle of Chinese women hawking illegal parking spots and a grief-stricken white man who encroaches on their turf. "Yeah, it's the park in the film, but it also refers to how we're all in meditation park," Shum says. "We all know life is finite. We're all struggling to find happiness, we're all struggling to find harmony with each other."
She hopes that the film will serve as a keyhole into a community and age group that our culture doesn't usually privilege as heroes.
In making Meditation Park, Shum herself found a measure of harmony. "I had written a very big Hollywood film," she said, which after four years of working on, didn't end up happening. Then came along the idea of a smaller, more intimate movie. Writing the script had "never come easier," Shum says. "In fact it's bizarre. It's once in a lifetime. I was like, 'That was magic.' " Meditation Park is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver.
Sharmaine Yeoh, above left, Pei-Pei Cheng, Alannah Ong and Lillian Lim star in Meditation Park, from writer-director Mina Shum, left.