Chinese martial arts legend Cheng Pei-Pei performs in Mina Shum meditation park
Producer / Writer / Director Mina Shum will participate in a Q&A after the 7:25 p.m. performances at Meditation Park at Fifth Avenue Theaters on Friday and Saturday March 9 and 10.
The heroine of Mina Shum’s Meditation Park is the great Cheng Pei-Pei, but we don’t learn her character’s name until 30 minutes after the movie starts.
Before that, she was called “old woman” (a doubtful affection if there was any) by her husband Bing (Tzi Ma) and “mother” by her daughter Ava (Sandra Oh). It was only after finding a pair of skimpy underwear in the pocket of her husband’s suit that our dedicated wife and mother found the courage to step out of her Vancouver home and apply for a job: âI am. Maria, âshe says proudly.
âYeah, that was very deliberate,â Shum says, of the major turning point for the character. âShe’s so proud when she says her name, it’s because she goes out and makes an identity for herself. It’s an English name, probably not her real name – her husband probably decided it for her years ago – but she owned it.
For 40 years since they emigrated to Canada, Maria is entirely dependent on her husband; she was in her sixties when she finally found the courage to enter the community and push her limits. She meets a spirited group of Chinese widows who sell their parking spots in their backyards to fairground and hockey patrons in their East Van neighborhood. She is learning to ride a bicycle. And she develops an unlikely friendship with Gabriel (Don McKellar), her neighbor shark-parking lot across the street.
Obviously, a journey of self-discovery can happen at any age. “I hope so,” said Shum. “Maybe I’m making the movie for my more mature self: I’m constantly re-inspired, invigorated, obsessed with something, coming of age over and over again.”
This is Shum’s fifth feature film. Her first, Double Happiness, starred Oh as a young Chinese-Canadian woman rebelling against the cultural boundaries of her strict parents. Here, Oh’s character finds himself firmly in the sandwich generation, working and caring for young children and trying to meet the emotional demands of aging parents. “He’s definitely an avatar of my life,” admits Shum, mother of an 11-year-old son. “You never have enough: there is not enough of me to spread me. But we have to be gentler on ourselves in terms of what we think we can accomplish. “
Shum admits that she wasted a lot of time trying to be “everything for everyone,” but finds that she is now more at peace with her imperfect self. âSometimes my hair is not combed, and sometimes I wear nice clothes,â she laughs. âYou can’t get around the people who are evaluating you. “
In the few decades since his first film, the definition of what a Chinese filmmaker looks like has also changed: âI’ve been working to broaden that. I’m not limited to the notion of what a Chinese director is like I was when I did Long Life (Long Life Happiness and Prosperity in 2002), when someone called my agent and assumed I didn’t even speak english … “
Shum wrote the screenplay with her friend Oh in mind (shortly after Grey’s Anatomy 10 seasons of Oh) and “she read it and loved it”. But Shum was reluctant to approach Don McKellar due to some of the similarities between Gabriel, his character, and the circumstances of McKellar’s life. âDon lost his wife about eight years ago, and I was afraid we were going into personal territory,â she says. Gabriel and Maria become friends despite the language barrier; McKellar had a neighbor whose husband died around the same time as the actor’s wife. âDon explained that his neighbor was Portuguese and didn’t speak much English and that they didn’t have much to say, but had tea every day at 3 am.â
She already knew Tzi Ma (Arrival) as “the visiting husband” who visited his wife Christina Ma on the set of Long Life. But the real coup was getting Cheng Pei-Pei in the movie. âBefore there were female role models, there was Cheng Pei-Pei,â Shum says. Cheng was âkicking the buttocksâ in martial arts movies from the 60s and 70s, films like Come Drink With Me from 1966. By the time she appeared as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon , Cheng had long since earned the nickname “Queen of Swords.”
âYeah, I can’t go back now: I just have to work with legends from now on, that’s all,â Shum jokes.
The recognizability of its actors presented challenges during the filming of Chinatown. âWe would rehearse and there would be a lot of ‘Cheng Pei-Pei, we love you!’ and it was lovely, because they were often women of his character’s age, âsays Shum. Other reactions were more difficult to predict, such as when a buyer in a fish shop scene kept messing up the catch because she wanted to buy fish. “She just really needed her grouper,” Shum laughed.
Meditation Park is shot not only in Shum’s hometown, but in his neighborhood. âI could walk home for lunch, sit and think about the afternoonâ¦ my home office became my trailer,â she says. When the scene called for a snow shovel, “we just ran to my house.” It’s a bustling little village, she says, with block parties, Applepalooza in the park, Christmas lights. “I think it’s a reaction to the addiction to smartphones, to this desire to get together,” she thinks. âI know my neighbors, and that’s really good.
When it comes to usability, Hollywood North has a bad reputation, she says. Shum did an experiment, “partly to get me out of my shell,” walking from her house in Hastings Street, greeting everyone she met. âI had people who didn’t speak English laughing, people who thought I was crazy, but mostly people were saying hello to me.
It’s okay if they don’t say hello, it’s not personal, Shum insists. âWe are very scared in some ways, it feeds capitalism very well to be scared. But the only way for us to survive is to kiss each otherâ¦ All my films are just that. My work is an antidote to this.
The Meditation Park opens March 9 at Cinemas on Fifth Avenue.