Canadian director Mina Shum on her unusually uplifting film, Meditation Park, about a middle-aged Chinese immigrant whose life drastically changes after her husband’s infidelity forces her to find her independence.
Mina Shum’s Meditation Park tells the uplifting story of Maria (Pei-Pei Cheng), an elderly woman who eventually finds her independence and community after learning that her husband, Bing (Tzi Ma), is having an affair with a younger woman. As a Chinese immigrant living in Vancouver who never fully learned to speak English, Maria has been socially isolated and entirely dependent on her husband for the entirety of their marriage. Bing’s infidelity pushes her to find her place in Canadian society and to seek financial independence. She befriends her neighbours — a group of Chinese immigrant women and one white man (Don McKellar) — who sell parking spaces in their backyards to the crowds attending nearby hockey games, and she soon joins their money-making venture.
With warmth and humour, Shum subtly addresses the trauma and isolation that are often part of the immigration experience, as well as the challenges faced by second generation immigrants. Because Maria’s English is elementary, she has little dialogue throughout the film. Shum compensates by using sound design, music, and cinematography to get us deep into Maria’s perspective, letting us understand her isolation and then rejoice with Maria as things start to change.
I talked to writer-director Mina Shum (Ninth Floor) about the inspiration for her film, depicting Vancouver on screen, working with actors, and using sound and image to depict Maria’s perspective.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of the film? Why did you want to tell this particular story now?
Mina Shum (MS): I’ve always been very aware of the difference between my generation and my mother’s. We immigrated here [from China] in the ‘60s. I was a baby. She was a young woman coming to Canada, hearing about women’s lib and the Beatles and burning bras. But her life was very different. She was here to serve the survival of her family. And yet she taught her daughters to be completely independent and educated, and not to need anyone, especially a man.
It was really interesting growing up in that household. She was not leading by example. But these thoughts of independence and autonomy were really important and foremost in her mind. The other day, my sister said, “The thing that mom said that was the most important to me was, ‘no one can ever take your education away from you.’” It was probably because my mother was not educated. She had to beg to finish grade 10. Women in her household were meant to be married off and not contribute in any fashion other than being a mother and a wife.
It’s something that I’m indebted to, but I’m also wondering why that is. Why [is she] so different from myself? It really came down to being powerless because you don’t have education. You don’t have language. You don’t have a community. Someone else has made all the choices in your life. That state of mind is also shared by people who have cell phones, bank accounts, and three PhDs. That is how people are feeling, in general, nowadays: a little powerless about the state of things.
[In the film,] I wanted to look at the world of Maria [(Pei-Pei Cheng)] and at this powerlessness, but I also wanted to make an uplifting film about it. We need to know that we have more power than we think. How do you harvest that? Often, it’s just fighting your own demons, your self-doubt, and societal expectations. These are all themes that are very dear to my heart because there are so many expectations placed on somebody that looks like me, and which I rejected. I haven’t rejected all of them, but I’m negotiating them every day.