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.‘I wanted Maria to receive the Batman treatment. I see her as a superhero’. Click To Tweet
7R: The film is a deep dive into Maria’s perspective. How did you think about getting us into her world, especially because, at first, she’s so cut off from everything around her?
MS: I knew I was writing a coming-of-age story late in life. I sat down, and I really channelled her. What would she do? She’s alone at home. What are her choices? She has nobody. What is she going to do?
I followed her twists and turns to the point where [Maria] decides to ask [her husband’s] lover to take him back. That came as a complete surprise to me as the author. I remember going, “what is she going to do now?” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I went, “I bet she just wished everything was back to how it was when he had his lover, and she didn’t have to take care of him — pretend she didn’t know.”
I’ve written many movies. But this one came to me like a lightning bolt. It was not hard. Within a month, I was pretty much done with the script.'She was not leading by example. But these thoughts of independence and autonomy were really important and foremost in her mind.'Click To Tweet
7R: The sound design and the music really help us get into Maria’s headspace. How did you develop that?
MS: I had very wonderful, generous collaborators. It was one of those fated movies. I was so lucky. Someone told me that a gentleman named Craig Berkey was living in Vancouver. Craig Berkey is the sound designer for No Country for Old Men, Tree of Life, Hannah, Darkest Hour, Hostiles... He’s a major artist. When I found out he was living here, he’s the very first person I sent the script to. [Berkey is] working in Hollywood; he did all the X-Men movies. And he’s never made a movie that sounds like Vancouver. He embraced it.
[Maria is] alone in her house so much. The sound design really has to affect us emotionally and get us inside her head. The location of the movie is very close to my house. So one of the things I did with Craig was, I took him around my neighbourhood, and we recorded sound. I thought I lived in a very quiet neighbourhood, and he made me realize how noisy it actually was: the rumble of the train in the distance. “You can’t hear the freeway over there?” I guess I’m used to it. He brought that to the fore. He inhabited Maria. The question of, emotionally, what’s happening right now? How does Maria hear the sound? Is there a train going by? Is it a lonely train, because she just found a thong [in the pocket of her husband’s trousers]? We were constantly designing with that in mind.
Andrew Lockington, who I did [my previous narrative feature] Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity with — it was his fourth composing project. He’s gone on to do San Andreas, all the Percy Jackson movies; he’s another big heavy hitter, Canadian. When he read the script, he was like, “I’ve got to do this. What kind of score do you want?” It was important to me that Maria receive the Batman treatment. I see her as a superhero. Her obstacles of being able to speak for herself, being able to try to get a job, that’s as big to me as a car chase in Deadpool. I wanted a very epic score for her. Andrew’s really good at that. You pick the right people to work with, and then you’re just making magic.'We need to know that we have more power than we think.'Click To Tweet
7R: Can you tell me about the production design and costumes in Meditation Park? I felt a real history in Maria’s home. How did you work with your production designer and costume designer to conceive this world for these characters?
MS: Jason Sutherland was my production designer, and Deanna Palkowski, in her first lead costume design role on a feature, knocked it out of the park. We worked closely with Peter Wunstorf, my director of photography, who has shot four of my feature films. We’re experienced collaborators together. The template of how I work with colour is all mixed in together.
How do the colours in Maria’s house express the history with her husband? The wallpaper is actually designed from a graphic book that my dad brought to Canada with him when we immigrated. When he died, my mother said, “Do you want this?” I said, “Absolutely, these are gorgeous prints of borders, of just shapes and designs”. Jason took the ones that worked best as wallpaper, and we made them wallpaper, changed the colour. The history of my family is in the home. All the photographs in that house are photoshopped photos of my family as we immigrated. It’s a low budget film, so we had to use any means necessary.
We were talking about looking at the colour gold, in terms of the suffocating light that Maria has to live with. It’s very beautiful. It’s slightly nostalgic. But it’s also slightly claustrophobic in her house. We only introduce the colour blue when Dylan [(Liane Balaban)], her future daughter-in-law, shows up at the house. Maria is in blue at the end of the film. It’s very deliberate: it’s the colour of liberation, the colour of the sky when she’s on that ferry [in the final shot of the film]. At one point, Jason was like, “No pinks and purples! There are no pinks and purples in this movie!” Those are two colours we did not have in this film, to make it feel more unified.
One of the fun things was to try to get the clothing of the [Chinese women selling parking spaces in their backyards] correct. That was one of the hardest parts. I really wanted to celebrate the fashion sense of the women of that generation, the women I see outside selling parking. At the same time, I didn’t want to make fun of them. They’re not cartoons. They’re wearing that leopard skin fleecy with blue jean overalls because it’s practical and because they think they’re being fashionable. It’s not because they’re trying to be garish. It was a fine line of trying to figure out… individuating each character, and at the same time, not making fun, not laughing at, but laughing with.'I’ve written many movies. But this one came to me like a lightning bolt.'Click To Tweet
7R: I found the colour yellow, in the umbrellas and other elements, really striking. How did you think about using yellows?
MS: There’s one scene where Maria and [her husband,] Bing, just re-found the thong, and they’re having dinner together. She’s just staring at him. She has one line. He’s like, “What?! What’s up?” He’s being super charming. It was very deliberate that we had a shiny yellow hit of light behind his head because he’s shiny. He’s sparkly. He’s doing everything he can to dig himself out. Then, on her side of the shot, there’s darkness behind her. It’s the sort of thing that only my fellow cineastes and film students will ever care about. But psychologically, we can see the dynamic. You don’t even have to have the sound on! You can just run that scene without the sound. To me, that’s always been my goal when I work with different elements in the film. The visual should be able to tell the story with no sound. The sound should be able to tell the story with no visuals.
7R: How did you approach working with the wonderful actors in the film?
MS: They read the script. They give me their feedback. I have a meeting with each one of them one-on-one, any questions for me… how do you feel? How do you like your clothes? Then, we had one day where we rehearsed. We rehearsed unconventionally in that we didn’t read through the script. I built the relationships of each family member.
I started with Pei-Pei by herself, just working with her sweeping, cleaning, answering the phone — different exercises she had to do. Then, I brought in her husband, Bing (Tzi Ma), and they solidified their relationship in a series of improvs. And then I brought in Sandra, and they were a family. I gave them a bunch of exercises to do, improvisations. Bing has to teach [his daughter] Ava how to dance for the prom. That has nothing to do with the film. But when she’s rubbing his feet later — that intimacy, the foundation for that, was formed in rehearsal.
At one point, I had Don McKellar and the three parking ladies in rehearsal with me. I put Don in one corner, and I put the three Chinese ladies on the other side. The structure was very simple: “You’re selling parking, and ladies, just start talking about him in Chinese”. He didn’t understand a word but he felt that isolation.
If I had more time, I might have done a read through. But it really didn’t feel necessary because I knew all of these actors. I had done previous meetings with them. It was just way more fun to get everybody on their feet and playing.'The history of my family is in the home we see in the film. All the photographs in that house are photoshopped photos of my family as we immigrated.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you approach casting the film? It has some of Canada’s brightest acting stars, like Don McKellar and Sandra Oh, and the legendary Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng.
MS: I needed the best ensemble to make the family. It was really finding the most experienced, passionate actors who felt right to me. I could have sent the script out to other Chinese-Canadian actors instead of Pei-Pei. But she lived in Los Angeles, isolated, with a divorce, and had to raise her three kids. That made her Maria. She had that personal connection. And Sandra Oh, very much a second generation harassed professional woman, dealing with her parents, her family… all of that in between. You do your best to find the right people. I certainly feel like this family clicked. They all weren’t from one country, necessarily, and they weren’t even from the same type of schooling. But somehow, this story brought them together.'That’s always been my goal: the visual should be able to tell the story with no sound. The sound should be able to tell the story with no visuals.'Click To Tweet
7R: The film felt very specific to Vancouver. How did you achieve that specificity?
MS: My other works that are kind of in this world, Double Happiness and Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity, are all shot in the same area: East Vancouver, industrial waterfront. I knew that, with the successes of those films, the more specific, the more universal. Having it grounded in a place where they’re selling backyard parking — that’s very everyday. It gives people who aren’t necessarily of this culture — who don’t look like Maria, who aren’t even women — an in. It becomes their world, as well.
I’m also a bit of a lazy fiction writer. I like to look out my window. I like to have my heart broken. I like to see things happening, and then incorporate that into the stories I’m telling. It’s almost like I’m shocked by my life. That creates a spark that creates a film for me.
My next film is a sci-fi movie, but grounded in a family dynamic. I’m actually showing the disowned son and father relationship in my film for the first time; I’m exploring that. In all my films, I’ve had this disowned brother who’s never seen. It dawned on me that there’s something there for me to experiment with, in the father-son relationship. So much of my stories are about women in a world of men. I thought, “Why are the men the way they are?” I can actually explore that! I didn’t want to come back to Vancouver backyard. To me, that was not where I wanted to situate the film. I ended up in the future.'I’m also a bit of a lazy fiction writer. I like to take inspiration by looking out my own window.'Click To Tweet
7R: Meditation Park is really uplifting despite the fact that it deals with darker issues. How did you think about creating the tone of the film through all these different elements?
MS: I wanted people to want to stay in Meditation Park. I wanted to make them feel like it was a safe place for them to think about their lives. The last thing we need is a sad movie about how powerless we are. That would not have served anyone. I need someone to tell me I have more power than I think.
I remember grappling with making sure the audiences knows, at the beginning, that they have the permission to laugh, to laugh with. Because these are real issues. It is true that women feel powerless, that they are erased as they get older. Have you ever seen a film like this? These stories obviously didn’t matter to anybody before. That is really sad. To be able to turn that around and go, “I’m going to change. I have the power to change.” I was doing an interview with Pei-Pei and Sandra, and they were like, “Let’s free all the Marias!” And that was the intention.
It wasn’t to go, “Wow, life is shit.” Because we know it’s hard. We know there’s a lot of suffering. But there are also moments of light in all of that. You see it throughout the template of the movie. It’s pouring rain throughout the film, and yet they’re dancing.
Mina Shum is one of Canada’s foremost auteur directors, and she has been telling stories about the immigration experience throughout her career. In 2015, we talked to her about her documentary Ninth Floor, which looked at the 1969 Sir George Williams University protest against racial discrimination in Montreal.
Few English-language films explore the immigration experience of Asian women, but we’ve covered some great ones. The recent Sundance film White Rabbit is a wonderful intersectional story about an LGBTQ second generation Korean-American artist. Across the ocean, Lilting stars Pei-Pei Cheng as a Chinese-British immigrant who cannot speak English, but who learns to communicate with her dead son’s boyfriend.