viff

VIFF 2017: A meditation on Asian moms

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

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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.

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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).
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.