VIFF 2017: A meditation on Asian moms

Meditation Park (2017)
Written and Directed by Mina Shum
Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Tzi Ma, Sandra Oh


Growing up, there was a certain stoicism to my family that I didn’t see in the households of my non-Asian friends. It’s why as an adult I enjoy seeing a different side of my mom when we joke around or share experiences that, while growing up, we maybe didn’t pursue as frequently as, say, Westerners.

Seeing a movie at the theatre is one of those experiences because, for one, while my parents may enjoy the outing, they don’t easily relate to anything you might find at your local Cineplex. So when I was checking out films for the Vancouver International Film Festival and read the synopsis for the locally filmed Meditation Park, I knew it was a movie my mom needed to see.

Written and directed by Mina Shum and starring Cheng Pei Pei, Tzi Ma and Sandra Oh, the film follows the journey of Maria, a long-settled immigrant who discovers her husband of many decades, the man she has been dutifully caring for and with which she has raised two adult children, has been having an affair.

What follows is Maria’s rediscovery of self and her pursuit of freedom. Slowly, her world opens up and she begins to see the many paths that lead to independence, whether it’s learning how to sell parking near the Pacific National Exhibition or making an unlikely friend.

Maria often hides her opinions and feelings from her husband, not out of fear but as a form of respect because that is what Chinese families do: we respect and we defer to the patriarch, no matter how frustrating it can be at times. Wives grin and bear it while their husbands fume; children clench their fists but remain quiet while their fathers lecture.

It may seem absurd to outsiders, but in Chinese culture, putting up with it is almost a form of respect and obedience. The challenge, as an immigrant in a new world, is learning to mesh your cultural values with the freedoms offered by your adopted Western home. Meditation Park highlights that experience beautifully through the eyes of someone who is beginning to realize there may be another way to “save face” but still stand up for oneself.

My mom and I went to see the film on opening night of the festival. Tickets were sold out but I told her we could take a chance in the standby line.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll get tickets, you’re OK that?”

“I’m fine with it,” she said, nodding her head and pulling up her posture, as if to prove she was fit for the job. Thankfully, a pair of strangers decided they didn’t need their tickets and were happy to share them with us.

With my mom on my 1st birthday, 1988.

When the credits rolled, I asked my mom what she thought and how she felt about the film. There are qualities in the character of Maria that I recognized in my mom, among them, the longing to be independent, to focus on herself without guilt.

My mom said she admired Maria’s bravery and boldness, and that she wished she could do the same. She remarked that, having lived in Canada for decades, Meditation Park was the first film she had seen that so clearly depicted life as a long-time Chinese immigrant in Canada. She has seen plenty of Chinese films (she was very excited to recognize Cheng Pei Pei and Tzi Ma) and has seen her share of English-language films, but Meditation Park was the first film to speak to her in a way she understood.

After the film, she wanted to meet the director and so, as a good daughter trying not to be embarrassed that my mom was so starstruck, I took her down to the theatre’s main floor to meet Ms. Shum.

Mina Shum, the writer and director of Meditation Park, is pictured on set in this handout photo.

Tapping Ms. Shum on the shoulder, I apologized for interrupting and thanked her for making the film and introduced my mom. She asked my mom what she thought and I immediately recognized the all too familiar look in my mom’s eyes.

Overwhelmed and emotional, she asked Ms. Shum if she spoke Cantonese and when Ms. Shum responded with a yes, my mom told her, in Cantonese, that the film was “very good, very enjoyable” and squeezed her clasped hands. I chimed in to say I didn’t think my mom had ever seen a movie she related with so well before.

“Our stories don’t get told very well,” said Ms. Shum empathetically.

And what a loss it is that our stories aren’t told very well or very frequently. In the case of my mom, she recognized in Maria a kindred spirit and as a result, the film validated some of the feelings I suspect she grapples with.

This is why representation in film matters, most of all. It’s so that people like my mom, whose stories are often considered “niche” and sidelined by Hollywood, can be affirmed in the spotlight, encouraged and told that they matter too.

You can see Meditation Park as a part of VIFF on Sept. 30 and Oct. 11, though both remaining screenings are currently sold out. The film opens in theatres March 9, 2018.


General Notes

  • The dialogue is a mix of Chinese and English, with subtitles, and for anyone who is nervous about a subtitled film, don’t be. This is literally how my brain functions when I am home and visiting family: I speak to my parents in English, they respond in a garbled mix of Chinese and English. It’s a thing.
  • Maria’s confusion, anger and sadness is communicated throughout the film with a thunderous rumbling, reminiscent of the drums you might hear during a Chinese lion dance. Listen for it, it’s used so well.
  • In press materials, Sandra Oh is quoted as saying: “After I read the script for the first time I was struck by how beautiful, subtle and deep it was. Really, I feel like Mina wrote a love letter to Asian immigrant moms and I really wanted to be a part of it.”
  • There wasn’t a lot of time spent exploring the relationship between Sandra Oh and Zak Santiago’s Ava and Jonathan but the few moments they had in the film speak so loudly when contrasted with the relationship between Maria and her husband Bing (Tzi Ma).


collectivehousing_coverLast fall, I wrote a story about a locally filmed documentary called Better Together, which looks at collective living as a solution to Vancouver’s housing crisis.

As most of us are aware, housing in Vancouver is not easy to come by – unless you’ve got cash to burn, don’t mind living in less-than-ideal rentals, or have all the time in the world to spend hunting down an available apartment. And if you have a pet? Good luck.

That’s where collective living comes in. Collective living is a return to community living, where people choose to live in a family setting and commit to spending quality time together. It’s not just your average roommate situation.

The documentary was pitched by local video journalist Jen Muranetz as an introduction to collective living and how it might be a viable alternative for the many folks in Vancouver searching for a home. The documentary was entered into the Storyhive competition and ended up being one of 30 finalists selected to receive a $10,000 Storyhive grant.

The documentary was released earlier this month and you can watch it below. Congrats to Jen and everyone else attached to the project!

You can read my original story about co-housing here and learn more about Jen’s documentary here.

VIFF 2016: Introverts, conspiracy theories, and love stories

Today’s the last day of the Vancouver International Film Festival, and I can happily say I am done for the year. I’ve previously only seen up to three films in a single year, but I managed to fit in five in 2016. It felt incredibly ambitious but I’m glad I did it.

Here’s a quick run-down of the films I was able to see this year.


The Lockpicker
Directed by Randall Okita; Starring Kelgian Umi Tang

I fall somewhere in the middle on the introvert-extrovert scale, but admittedly lean closer to the extroverted end. So it can be hard for me to understand introverts though I do put effort into accommodating the introverts in my life.

The Lockpicker paints a beautiful image of what it’s like living in one’s mind, wanting or needing to retreat internally, but also desiring to engage with the world outside. Newcomer Kelgian Umi Tang stars as Hashi, who is stunned by the suicide of a close friends and as a result, is forced against his nature to explore ways to escape – and even survive – his own circumstances, beyond what he’s usually comfortable treading.

The film is dark and can be heavy, but is also filled with glimpses of light and hope when Hashi begins to see a possible way out. The Lockpicker very much locks the audience in Hashi’s mind and doesn’t let us leave until Hashi himself finds a way out.


Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story
Directed by Daniel Raim; Starring Harold and Lillian Michelson

Harold and Lillian is most certainly “a Hollywood love story” but in many ways, it is so much more than that. The documentary follows the relationship between storyboard artist Harold and film librarian Lillian Michelson, but also takes detours (that don’t seem like detours) into each of Harold and Lillian’s own career paths.

If anything, the documentary illustrated what it looks like when two people are truly rooting for each other and back each other up. Through animated frames of milestones in their life together and greeting cards Harold has written Lillian over the years, viewers get the sense that yes, Harold and Lillian are a team, always have been, and always will be.

And Hollywood isn’t just a backdrop for Harold and Lillian’s love story; there’s the impression that it was their love that made Hollywood a little more gentle, kind, and easy to tackle in those early years. In a way, the couple’s love for each other was only matched by their love for their work and for Hollywood.


Gimme Danger
Directed by Jim Jarmusch; Starring Jim Osterberg

Gimme Danger is helmed by Jim Jarmusch and dives into the early days of iconic rock group Iggy and the Stooges. Knowing the space that Iggy Pop (Jim Osterberg) and the Stooges now inhabit in the annals of rock, it’s fascinating to meet them as misfit, abusive teenagers, pushing themselves and each other on stage, and to fully realize that they weren’t always the revered rock pioneers they are today.

Even more jarring is to strip away what we know of them now, and to see Osterberg, not yet aged by drug use and rock and roll, as a nearly clean-cut drummer for local high school bands. To think that this well-suited, tie-wearing drummer would later bleed and writhe on stage for no reason other than to spur on his band mates’ performance can only elicit one appropriate, seemingly obvious response: “Of course. OF COURSE.”

As far as rock documentaries go, Gimme Danger offers the exact kind of nuggets fans hope for, such as Osterberg discussing how he took a hit of Mescaline and headed off with a shovel to try and squat in an abandoned house that would later become home to the Stooges’ early days. Of course. OF COURSE.


Operation Avalanche
Directed by Matt Johnson; Starring Matt Johnson and Owen Williams

Movies about making movies hold a strange, special place between reality and fiction. Operation Avalanche, much like Matt Johnson’s previous film The Dirties, is no exception.

In 2013’s The Dirties, Johnson and Owen Williams play a pair of high school students making a film about high-school bullies. The line between what’s part of the story and what’s part of their actual filmmaking process begins to blur, and it’s at that point where audiences stop laughing and start becoming concerned for – well, we’re not sure who to be concerned for because we’re not sure if the movie in the movie has slowly become real life (in the movie).

Operation Avalanche follows the CIA’s crack audio-visual team, which has been embedded at NASA in the 1960s and tasked with staging the moon landing when it’s discovered NASA can’t do it themselves. It’s presented in much the same way The Dirties was structured; the characters don’t break the fourth wall, but more so step in and out of it fluidly. When Johnson reveals to his CIA supervisor that he’s being filmed unknowingly through a one-way window by a member of the A/V team, the audience feels like it should wave back as well.

It’s interesting to see how Johnson and his team have matured and changed in the last three years since The Dirties was released. In Operation Avalanche, Johnson is much more assured about absorbing the audience itself into the story. The film is a hell of a good time, an intelligent conspiracy theory suspense-comedy-thriller that makes you wonder what Johnson will cook up next.


Harry Benson: Shoot First
Directed by Justin Bare and Matthew Miele; Starring Harry Benson

They teach you in journalism school not to become part of the story, in order to avoid any semblance of bias or influence. But what a joy that noted photojournalist Harry Benson is the story.

Harry Benson: Shoot First documents Benson’s many years in photography and goes into detail sharing the story behind some of the Scotsman’s most recognizable and iconic photos. The stories of his many interactions with celebrities are a joy to listen to, such as how legendary pop star Michael Jackson would often compliment Benson’s jackets and end up adopting them for his own wardrobe. Or perhaps how Benson managed to elbow out competing photographers through wit, charm, and cheekiness. (He’d hear from a subject that they hated cursing and so he’d go around telling other photographers that the subject loved cursing.)

It’s also one of the most beautifully shot documentaries I’ve seen, with camera angles many would never think to stage for a simple sit-down interview. Slideshows of Benson’s photographs paired with scene-setting music pulls the audience deeper into each image, as if we were there too when the photo was taken.

As a journalist myself, the documentary lights a fire in me, and reiterates the importance of being there, being present, and being absorbed by a story or a subject. Benson offered his subjects something more than just a camera lens, he offered himself and it’s because of those relationships and that trust that Benson has been allowed – and even invited – to document some of the world’s most famous faces and scenes.

Vancouver collective housing documentary wins Storyhive grant

It’s always nice to hear updates from people I’ve written stories about and to learn that things are going well.

I Interviewed Jen Muranetz last month about collective living. She’s a video journalist and had pitched a short documentary on collective housing to the Storyhive competition. She’s hoping the documentary will explain what co-housing is and how it might be a viable solution to Vancouver’s housing crisis.

Those who are skeptical would do well to hear her out. After spending a couple of hours interviewing Jen and her housemates at their home – affectionately called the Lounge – I was starting to think maybe I’d be ready to move in too. Even if it’s not for you, it’s a very interesting lifestyle and one that was fascinating to learn about.

Anyway. I received an email from Jen today, letting me know her project, titled Better Together, was one of 30 finalists who had been selected to receive a $10,000 Storyhive grant. Congratulations and I look forward to checking out the documentary when it’s completed.

You can read my original story about co-housing here and learn more about Jen’s documentary here.

Local Pinball Wizard star of new documentary premiering in May

Since I started working full-time as a journalist in 2011, I’ve interviewed dozens of people and have shared countless stories. Some stories stick with me more than others, for various reasons.

Among those is a series that I wrote and produced in the fall of 2011 for 24 Hours. It was titled The Top 24 Under 24. We had asked our readers across Metro Vancouver to submit names of teens and young adults who were at the top of their field, who stood out from the rest, who seemed poised for success and extraordinary things. Needless to say, many of the students we profiled that first year continue to enjoy great success today.

Robert Gagno was one of the students I profiled back in 2011. At the time, Robert was the top pinball champion across Canada, and was also ranked 13th internationally after competing for only two years. He had an indescribable talent for the vintage arcade game despite his autism.

Today, I learned Robert is the subject of a new documentary titled Wizard Mode that is slated to premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival this May. The documentary is produced by Salazar Film and was partly funded by a successful Indiegogo campaign last year that raised $43,500. It is Salarzar’s debut feature length documentary.

The trailer features a brief glimpse of our 24 Hours two-page spread on Robert, which was first published in 2011. (You can spot the headline at 0:43!) It gave me a small sense of pride, not because I claim any sort of credit for Robert’s accomplishments, but because we played some small role in sharing his story.

It’s one of the reasons I love journalism and it highlights the favourite part of my job: We find interesting stories about wonderful people doing great things and we share that with the world. It’s exciting to see that Robert’s story will now be shared with even more people.

Congratulations to the team at Salazar and to Robert.

(PHOTO: Robert Gagno, who has autism and is pictured in this 2011 photo, is one of the top-ranked competitive pinball players in the world. He was also one of 24 hours’ Top 24 Under 24 students. CARMINE MARINELLI, 24 HOURS.)

Getting answers about short films

What if… Just what if you could have the answer to any question that has ever crossed your mind? Would you ask?

I recently wrote about the Crazy 8s Film Festival, taking place here in Vancouver. (You can read that story here.) The assignment opened my eyes to the possibilities and challenges of short films. Similar to what I do as a tabloid reporter, short films force filmmakers to tell their story without frills, without the luxury of length and time. You’re really tasked with picking out the most important aspects of what it is you want to communicate.

Back to my introduction. While discussing the Crazy 8s Film Festival recently, I was introduced to The Answers, a short film starring Daniel Lissing and Rose McIvor, and directed by Michael Goode. It explores that idea of what we’d do and how we’d respond if we had definitive answers for all of life’s most pressing questions. What would you ask? Would you want to know? It’s interesting to note what questions get asked in the film’s eight-minute duration. I suspect it’s not too far off from what most of us would wonder.

Watch the film below.

Laughing until you cry: Thoughts on Robin Williams and mental health

Robin Williams. (Credit: Peggy Sirota for Parade.)

Robin Williams. (Credit: Peggy Sirota for Parade.)

Mrs. Doubtfire is one of those films my brother and I absolutely loved as kids and would always stop to watch whenever we found it while channel surfing. What’s not to love? Robin Williams’ performance is outlandish but gentle in all the right ways.

It’s one of those film that reminds you of childhood, a film that makes you feel at home. And after news broke of Williams’ death on Monday afternoon, I know many others also feel the same way.

The 63-year-old actor and comedian was discovered dead Monday in his home and it was revealed he had likely committed suicide. Police said Williams was being treated for depression at the time, which only further cements the truth that depression and mental illness does not discriminate and is often hidden behind happy faces and laughter.

Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

The challenge with depression and mental health is that despite much of the information and awareness out there, it’s something really difficult to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it yourself or have seen it play out in a loved one. This was my experience a couple years ago when a family member was diagnosed with encephalitis.

Even when you’re present and watching first-hand as a family member goes through the stages of a mental health problem – being diagnosed, accepting it, learning to live with it – it’s hard to reconcile the person you know with the spectre that hangs over them.

It’s important to realize that the mind is just as fragile as any other part of the human system. You often hear people talk about how a broken mind, although invisible to the human eye, is just as serious as a broken bone. This is something I acknowledge and have repeated to myself often but even then, I find myself asking how something so debilitating could affect someone I love so much.

The reality is that mental health shouldn’t be something we only talk about when we’re struck with a lightning bolt of an event, such as Williams’ death. Mental wellness is something we should all be mindful of, in ourselves and in those around us. Just as how we’re taught from a young age to exercise and eat well, we should also be aware of how to maintain our own mental health and fitness.

I’m often skeptical of the echo chamber that is the Internet but if there’s anything worth sharing and repeating a thousand times over, it’s the discussion around mental health and wellness. For more information on mental health, you can check out some of the links I’ve included below.

Canadian Mental Health Association (B.C.)

B.C. Mental Health & Substance Use Services

B.C. Ministry of Health Toll-Free Information Lines

Mental Health America

First Look: Wish I Was Here

The trailer for Zach Braff’s new film Wish I Was Here was released today and it is lovely. From Zach Braff: “Get ready to hear in the trailer the unbelievable, original song The Shins made just for our movie.  James Mercer saw our film and was so inspired he wrote an original song just for the movie. (It’s the second song you’ll hear…)”

Review: Like Crazy

In the most recent issue of Converge Magazine, I did a review of Like Crazy, a film starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. I saw the movie at VIFF 2011 and really enjoyed it. Check out the review and if you’ve seen the move, let me know what you think.     -Stephanie

Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Converge Magazine.


Director: Drake Doresmus
Writers: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones
Starring: Anthon Yelchin, Felicity Jones

Like Crazy (2011)

LIKE CRAZY is the story of a British girl and her American boyfriend who must face the realities of a long-distance relationship after she overstays her student visa and is shipped home to the UK. Captured beautifully by Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett, Star Trek) and Felicity Jones (The Tempest), Jacob and Anna must find a way to make their relationship work while their everyday lives seem to pull them further apart.

The film, directed by Drake Doremus, seems trivial at first: young love is separated and their idealistic desires begin to create friction in their relationship. However, upon spending time with Jacob and Anna both together and individually, the audience is wrapped into their feelings of abandonment and conflict, selfishness and longing. Both Jacob and Anna struggle, not with fidelity, but with the halting pace of their connection. Their relationship is on again, off again — but it’s never long before they find the familiarity of the other’s embrace.

As Jacob and Anna reconnect throughout the years following college graduation and their forced separation, it becomes obvious that the success of their love is based on two factors: convenience and chemistry. While both are certainly of value in a relationship, it seems troubling, although not entirely surprising, that the two young adults have built their entire romance on these two concepts. This detail is hammered home when Anna’s parents suggest marriage as a solution to their visa troubles and the lovers react with surprise and uncertainty.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones portray long-distance lovers learning to face the realities of their relationship. (SCREEN CAP)

Yelchin shines in his role and is perfect as a down-to-earth, patient boy; a carpenter and furniture designer. His character’s occupation seems to reinforce the idea that Jacob is always the one left behind, rooted in place like a tree from which he takes his craft materials. His gift to Anna early in the film — an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair that she absolutely adores — represents him perfectly: well-built but not universally attractive, the inside joke to their relationship.

Like Crazy also succeeds in that the beginning of Jacob and Anna’s relationship never seems rushed despite being forced into a quick montage that shows their initial flirtation unfurl over the course of a school year. A scene that cuts through different clips of the couple sleeping entwined in different positions manages to illustrate quite simply the immediacy and quick development of their attraction.

The film has been rumoured to be based on Doremus’ personal history. Media interviews with his wife reveal that many details of the film (down to the timing of the storyline and details of the visa complications) are remarkably similar to their real-life story. With this in mind, the pain of separation experienced by Jacob and Anna seem all too realistic, which is perhaps why certain scenes are almost difficult to watch.

Even so, audiences both cringe and rejoice with the couple though all their lows and highs. As the film comes to its conclusion, viewers begin to realize that no matter what Jacob and Anna thought was the right way to do things, it’s clear there’s no road map for love.

Presented at the 27th Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, Like Crazy garnered a Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic film category and Jones won a Special Grand Jury Prize for her portrayal of Anna. It’s since been picked up by Paramount Vantage and was released to mainstream audiences in late October.

Feature Photo: Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones portray long-distance lovers learning to face the realities of their relationship. (Screen cap by Stephanie Ip.)

Feature: VIFF 2011

The Vancouver International Film Festival happens every fall, beginning in late September and running through mid October. This year, the festival kicks off September 29 and wraps up on October 14. Like any other film festival, the selection is vast and is a great chance to check out something other than the average box office Hollywood blockbuster.

First Outing

My first experience with VIFF happened in 2006 when the Pixies’ documentary loudQUIETloud was playing. I bought a ticket and remember standing in a line-up in the rain. outside the theatre on Granville Street. Not a lot of my friends at the time liked or knew who the Pixies were so I ended up going by myself. I don’t know what it was but maybe it was my inner desire to be an old soul that made me feel comfortable standing among the crowd of late twenty and thirty-something year olds. Whatever it was, I enjoyed it and decided VIFF needed to be a regular thing in my life.

Last Year

In 2010, I saw Xavier Dolan’s Les amours imaginaires. I arrived late and ended up taking a seat over to the side. The view itself wasn’t that bad but because I was late, I was stuck sitting behind someone — which obstructed my view of the subtitles. I speak French but it’s been awhile and I’m rusty so every scenes, I had to crane my neck to check and see if I had gotten the meaning right on a couple lines of dialogue. You can read my review of that film here.

Coming Up

This year, I’ll be seeing two films. The first is Happy, Happy, a Norwegian film directed by Anne Sewitzky and starring Agnes Kittelsen, Joachim Rafaelsen, Maibritt Saerens and Henrik Rafaelsen. It’s a comedy about two couples and what happens when they begin comparing their lives and wondering about the greener grass on the other side of the fence. The fact that the film takes place during Christmas doesn’t hurt either. If you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for holiday films.

The second is Like Crazy, a film about a British student who falls in love while studying in America but is then sent back to the UK. The storyline sounded really cliche when I first heard of the film, which stars Anton Yelchin, but after I watched the trailer a couple times, I started to appreciate the conflict and the difficulties the characters are faced with. Who knows? Maybe I’ll watch and still be severely disappointed but I guess we’ll find out.

There’s a couple of other films I’m thinking of checking out but in the mean time, keep posted for my reviews of those two films later in October. I highly recommend you take a look through the film guide and see if anything catches your eye. There’s a film for everyone in pretty much any language you want, in any genre you’d like.