vancouver international film festival

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).

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.