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Interview: Writer/Director Mina Shum on the Themes of 'Meditation Park' and Her Personal Connection to the Story

March 8, 2018Britany Murphy

Every family is different, and every family faces different struggles that they have to tackle, and they have to find out where that will ultimately leave them. In Meditation Park, family matriarch Maria (Cheng Pei-Pei) has to decide just where her fork in the road leads, after finding out about her husband Bing's (Tzi Ma) infidelity.

The Reel Roundup got a chance to sit down with writer/director Mina Shum to chat about the importance of Meditation Park as it relates to family, diversity and Canadian identity, and to find out which of her personal attributes can be found within the film.

You both wrote and directed Meditation Park. What is it like melding those two things together?

Shum: Sometimes it's ideal to be writer and director, because it's really easy to track the intention that was in your heart that created the character to translate to screen. The hard part about it is when you start cutting the things that you wrote out, as the director. The whole idea is to serve the film and serve the story, so it benefits to cut stuff out.

It used to be harder for me to do, and now I'm just cutthroat. We started filming and realized we needed to cut a day out of the filming; the shooting schedule in Vancouver was just too expensive. My two collaborators, Raymond Massey and Stephen Hegyes, turned to me in the first couple days of filming and said, "So, we might end up having to cut something because we’re running over already." So I looked at them and I was like, "Okay." And they were just like, "We were just warning you, sometime down the line in this 18-to-19-day shoot, you might have to cut something." And I went home that night and I cut it. I cut a day and I phoned them the next day and said, "I'm cutting this. We're not losing anything, I'm just marrying some information into other scenes and whatnot."

So even though it was painful to cut, it was beneficial that I wrote and directed, because then I knew why that scene was originally there and what I needed to keep to go into the next scene. There's, in some ways, a purity of storytelling when you are the writer/director.

Since the film is very much about family, were there any personal influences or experiences of yours that you incorporated into it?

Shum: Really the whole idea for the film came to me because I grew up in a household where my mother taught the girls to be independent, to be liberated, to not listen or need anybody, and yet my mother was completely devoted to her family and her husband. And now that my father's passed on, she actually came out into the world and started having her own friends. And I really saw my mother doing things she never did before, like going to the crazy drum circle with her daughter, Mina, because she's just willing to experience it. And that wouldn't have happened had she not been given her own life at some point.

You serve as a mother — as a Chinese mother in a traditional home — and you've got the added thing of trying to make a better life for your family in a new country. And you don't know English very well, you’ve never had a job here. So that’s really where the idea sparked, from family, experience-wise.

And then also, for some reason, within a condensed period of two or three years, there were all these stories of infidelity around the older women in my family, or friends of family, and how it was always the women who had to make peace with it. I thought there was a lot of power and a lot to be derived from that kind of courage.

But the film is called Meditation Park for two reasons: it's a park in my neighborhood, but also, we're all in Meditation Park, all of us. We're all just trying to figure out how to find happiness in this little time we have, when we know it's gonna end.

So I wanted to make a film where — even [with Don McKellar's] Gabriel, who's selling parking, or the Liane Balaban part, when she's only in one scene — all they're trying to do is find their happiness. They're trying to find how they fit into the world and find harmony with themselves and the inevitable place we all end up in in the end, and trying to make peace with that in their lives right now.

As you were saying, Meditation Park centers specifically — and mostly around — the family's matriarch, Maria. Is there any personal ode to your own mother within the story?

Shum: Oh God, it's hilarious — at one point we were filming the scene where Sandra's character, Ava, shows up to give her mother the wedding invitation. But we're filming the scene with Sandra, and Maria at one point has a line where she says, "What am I supposed to do with that?" And it was so like my mom the way she said it, and I just turned to Sandra and was like, "You know, I didn't think this was therapy." She just laughed at me! She was like, "Bullshit this is not therapy. It's all therapy!" And I guess so!

My mom is super resilient. You could punch her in the face, she would fall down, and she'd get back up with a smile and go, "Alright, on with the day." So definitely, that backbone is in Maria. That no matter what, she can get through anything.

Sandra Oh's character is first-generation Canadian, as a lot of Canadians are. Even I'm first generation Canadian. Why did you feel it was important to depict a first-generation Canadian family?

Shum: Sometimes I'm a lazy fiction writer. So I don't go very far to find my stories. But also, I'd never seen this story before. I've never seen a story where we recognize the first-generation [Canadian children] of immigrants and their impact within the fabric of our country.

Also, it was very telling to me when I was talking to my best friend, who's a principal. He's progressive, left-of-center — all the right things to be pro-immigrant, pro-women. And when I told him the story of the film, he said, "I never thought of the women who are selling parking to have such a rich inner life." And I said, "Oh my God, that you said that to me means this has to be a movie." Because to assume that just because media only has people of certain color, of certain height, of certain hair color as heroes; that the guy that's doing your laundry — who's Chinese, who doesn't speak English very well — doesn't have struggles just like you in the same Meditation Park that you live in, that to me was a huge imbalance that I had to write.

I'm kind of shocked and saddened by the fact there aren’t more stories like this [laughs]. We take up how much of the population, right? It's not equitable. But it certainly comes from a place of love, of trying to get humanity to understand all humans.

So if I can see myself on screen, then maybe someone unlike me will look at me with more compassion and understanding. But also, someone who looks like me might feel a little bit more courage because they've seen themselves. It's both acknowledgement and also enlightening to others, that's what I feel. But also most importantly was that the story was never polemic; that it was entertaining.

One thing I really enjoyed about it was that the characters — even the side-characters, like the ladies who were helping Maria sell the parking — were all just so good. Is there a certain process you try to take to get the best out of your cast? You have Sandra Oh, you have Cheng Pei-Pei...

Shum: Oh yeah! I was told Ang Lee does the same thing — it's this idea of dinners, little gatherings, lots of conversation about the character way before you go on set. And then we did have an afternoon where I got the actors in different groupings, and we worked on improvs around their characters.

At one point, Cheng Pei-Pei and Tzi Ma [were] improvising a scene where Tzi shows up to Pei-Pei's house and says, "I'm moving to Canada. Will you come?" And it was one of the most beautiful moments; beautiful to experience that in a rehearsal room, but also very important for them as a root backstory for them later.

So there's choosing key moments that they needed to come to life a little. Having them work together beyond the dialogue of the movie was also very important. You gotta feel each other's souls. I think one of the great successes of the film is the chemistry between the cast. Those dinner scenes feel very natural, so loving.

Lastly, I wanted to ask you about filming Maria's scenes. I found that when she found her liberation, it was very heartwarming. How did it feel as a director to shoot those scenes, and as a writer, writing it out, how did that feel?

Shum: I always knew that we needed to shine [a light on] her courage in the film, so that other people could see it. There's a couple moments where she's liberated, but really, it's not until the end of film where she's fully liberated. So I wrote the scene going to Bowen Island on the ferry, because it's literally the last shot in the film. She's standing there, and when the ferry turns, there's this optical illusion — it creates this feeling [that] she's in Heaven [sings "Ahhh!"], visually.

The first scene we shot in the entire film was the last scene of the film. And we shoot the scene, it's silent. It's just [an] acting moment for [Pei-Pei]. The whole crew was in tears, and I shed tears when I was directing this scene, and this was the first day! And I knew the film was gonna be amazing. [laughs] After that, I was like, "Okay, this is all gonna work!"

Because you don't quite know until you put someone on the spot. What if they're nervous? What if they have to smoke 15 cigarettes before? No, Pei-Pei just got up there. She's a consummate professional, because she's been doing it since she was 17, too. I've never worked with someone who doesn't want a stand-in; she likes to stand on her own marks. She can do things over and over again with beautiful precision and variety. But for her, in this movie, it was personal. She also felt that it was important to speak for her generation.

Meditation Park opens March 9th in Toronto and Vancouver.

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