Interview: Mina Shum
The Vancouver filmmaker always wanted to make a movie about how she and her mother are so different, and in her new movie Meditation Park, she reunites with Sandra Oh to make it happen.
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER — Mina Shum says she’s trying to be “a good Chinese daughter.” After a greeting at the door of the hotel suite, she ushers me to a seat, and checks to make sure the publicist is comfortable. The place is all too generic for a talk about the particular. With its creamy white walls and bleached white linens, the hotel room overlooking Vancouver’s downtown skyline is all postcard pretty, displaying snow-capped mountains and green-patina copper rooftops. Shum says she loves every corner of this coastal town, but her new movie Meditation Park is looking at a different view of the city she calls home.
Set in the Eastside neighbourhood of Sunrise-Hastings, and focused on one family’s love-laden unravelling, Meditation Park stars Asian heavyweights Cheng Pei-Pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Tzi Ma as Maria and Bing, a longtime couple struggling through a matter of infidelity. The film also reunites Shum with bona fide movie star Sandra Oh, the ingenue behind Shum’s feature debut Double Happiness, who once again takes on the role of exasperated daughter, and in many ways, Shum’s alter ego.
“I write everything as if it’s me,” says Shum. “In the case of Maria, I had to extrapolate by a few years. I didn’t know what a 72-year-old woman playing 60 looks like, and Pei-Pei had this grace that was not the gawky Mina character. She had this subtlety…I knew we needed that because we are watching her the whole time. There is only one scene that she isn’t in.”
Maria forms the core of the film because when Shum started writing the script, she was looking to explore the life of someone like her own mother. But not her mother, specifically.
“I kind of think since birth, from when I wanted to tell stories, I wanted wanted to talk about how my mother and I are so different. My mother taught us to be independent, to never need to a man, to be educated. But she was totally not that. She never got a driver’s licence because she was too afraid about the English, you know? And she served the family. Completely. She gave her life to us,” says Shum, whose most recent film with the NFB, The Ninth Floor, hit TIFF’s Canadian top ten.
“I always joked with her that I wanted to do a Freaky Friday movie: She would go to the punk rock show and go to film school, and I would learn how to make congee well.”
I kind of think since birth, from when I wanted to tell stories, I wanted wanted to talk about how my mother and I are so different. My mother taught us to be independent, to never need to a man, to be educated. But she was totally not that.
Meditation Park isn’t Freaky Friday, but the experience served Shum in similar ways, allowing her to walk a few blocks in a pair of sensible shoes. “I was looking for something to do. I had been working for maybe a year, and Ninth Floor had not been green-lit yet. It was on the precipice of being green-lit. It was the summer time and I was taking my nieces and nephew and my son to the beach. And my mom was going to give us a hand. She was in the front seat of the car and she leans over to me and says: ‘You know so and so — then in Cantonese — the cat caught a new fish.’ I was like, what are you talking about? What? The cat caught a new fish?”
Shum laughs. “She said, ‘you know…so and so took on a new lover.’ And I said ‘you guys call it the cat caught a new fish?’ She goes ‘yeah, it’s a saying women have with each other.’ And immediately, I went, ‘I love being Chinese!’”
Shum says she loves the visual aspect of Cantonese, and the image of the cat with a new fish set her mind racing. That night, she came up with the idea of Maria finding an orange thong in her husband’s pocket.
“Infidelity has come up with my friends and family. Everyone deals with it so differently. My Chinese friends and my western friends don’t deal with it the same way. My western friends would file for divorce, go to therapy, go to couples’ counselling, have a threesome, who knows?” says Shum.
“But in Chinese culture, I had one family member who was pretty sure her husband was having an affair. She sat it out. When he came bak, she knew something had happened because suddenly he was available again, and she hated it!”
Shum laughs. “My relative had a year of hanging out with her lady friends. She got into health food and started cooking vegan.… She knew. But she didn’t have any money of her own. The business wasn’t in her name. The house wasn’t in her name. She didn’t have a bank account. Her English wasn’t that great. And she didn’t have that many friends, and to this day, she hasn’t said anything about it.”
Shum says all the stories started filtering through her narrative strainer, and suddenly, she was putting scenes together in her mind. And for Shum, that’s one of her favourite places to be.
“I was realizing after the TIFF premiere [for Meditation Park] that it’s been a four-year haul to get back to this place… of making narrative film… including Ninth Floor which was made in between. Now, compared to some productions, that’s relatively quickly. We pulled this together because everybody loved the script. Sandra said yes. Pei-Pei said yes. Tzi said yes. Telefilm said yes. Everyone said yes. It was making sure that we had enough of a budget,” she says.
“And this is not the kind of film you can presell the rights for and then can go to Yugoslavia and make it. It’s not a genre film. So that was a big part of it. I had five actors flying into Vancouver, which is ridiculous for a small film. And so that was a bit of a journey. Everybody wanted to make the movie. It was just finding the partners and figuring out how we were going to do it. Like if CBC didn’t come up with their Breaking Barriers program, we would have been underfunded. So thank god that program came into place right when I was making this movie.”
Before Meditation Park came together, Shum says she was trying to pull together a project she co-wrote with Bob Martin, one of the writers on the Tony winning Drowsy Chaperone. “It was a project called Two of Me, and it was huge. It was a $10 million dollar movie… and we were always waiting for an actress. You’d send the script out and wait for the agent to call and a month would go by. Just to get a note. It would take a month.”
Then Brightlight Pictures, the production company she was developing Two of Me with, split up as Shawn Williamson and Steve Hedges parted ways.
“When that happened, I said I want to do something different. I want to do something where I am surprised by my work, where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. And, that was the place I wanted to end up: Being really specific and … having control over the overall vision.”
Shum says Meditation Park fit the bill: “Like, I am a producer on it, I am a writer-director on it, so like that kind of direct connection from my brain to the audience, I wanted to do that. And also at the same time, I am in a different place, so I knew that the movie, whatever I was going to do, was going to be informed by the experiences in between. And that includes the Ninth Floor, which had spy elements in it. And it’s something I’d been thinking about for years because spying is an interesting metaphor for how we see each other, right? And that worked itself into this movie.”
The other thing that worked itself into the movie was Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue. “I wrote it with the [different languages] because it’s something I love about living in this city. Even in Hong Kong, the idea of Chinglish, and mixed up languages is there. But any time there is something serious, it’s Chinese. If it’s in public, where we are trying to be cool and western, drinking Coca-Cola and red wine, then it’s in English. I wanted the mistress to speak Mandarin so she has her own exoticism within the world of Maria.”
Shum says the Cantonese-Mandarin divide is something she struggles with herself. “I meet someone Chinese and we struggle because I speak Cantonese and they speak Mandarin, so we struggle in English together – because it’s easier than trying in either language, actually.”
At one point, the Mandarin was seen as a potential selling point. Someone even suggested the movie could have more of the most-spoken language on the planet as it might help marketing down the line.
“Yeah, there was a suggestion of that. But I said nah. I don’t care. I’m going to do what’s true to this specific time and place. And here’s my thing about life and filmmaking… I will never make peer-based choices. [What if you made] the whole film in Mandarin because it might sell better in the Mandarin market? What if it doesn’t? Then you’ve compromised your vision.”
Shum says she was lucky with this one. “There weren’t too many cooks in the kitchen. I will take advice from anyone. And if it’s a good idea, I will listen. But it has to serve the instinct that the film was born out of.”
Shum says the instinct behind Meditation Park was steeped in the mood of the city itself. “It’s a present day movie, but everything in the house looks like it’s from the 1970s because that’s what my mom’s house looks like,” she says.
And here’s my thing about life and filmmaking… I will never make peer-based choices.
“I was also using the landscape, for sure. Because for me, that’s the go-to metaphor for our existential condition. We’re so small and nature is so big. Just look at the cranes, the biggest things we have, and they are still so small against the mountains. And we’re even smaller. So what’s our place in all that?”
Indeed, it’s all about finding a place to park yourself — which is another metaphor that comes through via a running joke about parking for the PNE in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood. All the ladies sell the spots in their driveways, until the parking fuzz attempts to break up the black market blacktop rentals. It’s a competitive business, and the odd man out of the hustle is Gabriel — the white Gen-X’er, played by Don McKellar (Last Night, The Drowsy Chaperone, Twitch City).
It’s the fun part of the movie, but the character of Gabriel also brings the most pathos: he has a terminally ill partner at home. Shum said she didn’t write it for McKellar, who experienced the same loss in real life when Tracy Wright died in 2010. “I thought it would be too close, too, but he really wanted to do it.”
Shue says the dynamic between Gabriel and the other parking ladies, as well as his dynamic with Maria, are part of the deeper story about just learning to get along with others. “Gabriel and Maria … are both trying to sell parking, and both of them are thinking the other person is doing it wrong. That, I think in a nutshell, is one of the tensions in our society. In any society, I think: Thinking your point of view is the right point of view.”
Shum says the parts that are particular to Vancouver, such as the chaos, the gentrification, the hipsters, the constant change. “I wanted to capture the change in a microcosm,” she says. “Because things change and while I’m sad about some of it, I don’t suffer for it. I can’t do anything about it.”
Gabriel and Maria … are both trying to sell parking, and both of them are thinking the other person is doing it wrong. That, I think in a nutshell, is one of the tensions in our society. In any society, I think: Thinking your point of view is the right point of view.
Yet, she says just shooting in old Chinatown pushed her to tears. “The oldest Chinese printing press in Vancouver was about to shut down. I went and bought a bunch of pieces then bawled my eyes out… All this mechanical, analog space will be gone. It makes me feel like time is passing,” she says.
“All the same, my feelings about this city haven’t really changed. I love living here. [The Georgia Straight’s] Adrian Mack said when I made Double Happiness, Vancouver was suffering from a lack of identity. And now here we are. Really? Because I have just been making movies the whole time…”
That’s not entirely true. Shum also did some time in a standup workshop, and she says in the midst of her opening galas over the festival season, she reconnected with a former classmate.
“I was just sitting outside the CBC, after doing Q, and this guy from my standup class sat down with me for ten minutes, and told me about everything that was going on in his life. He had a baby. He also had a cancer scare,” she says.
“I didn’t know him that well, but in standup…we formed this bond. I love the fact people just feel they can talk and share sometimes. And that I am here to listen, and god, maybe I will mirror his story sometime, some day. I just felt it was a huge gift yesterday. I came home from all the excitement of the gala and told my partner about my day… and I think it’s telling that the most exciting thing for me yesterday was talking to the guy who told me about his life in the middle of it all,” she says.
“Maybe that’s part of our west coast thing. We’re open to being vulnerable, and talking about feelings.”
Meditation Park is now open in select Canadian markets. Mina Shum will appear for select Q&A sessions at Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue cinemas today, March 10. For more information and showtimes, visit cineplex.com.
Photos by Katie Yu, courtesy of Mongrel.
THE EX-PRESS, March 10, 2018