Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Sweet Concoction: Meditation Park

Cheng Pei Pei (left) and Sandra Oh in Meditation Park.

I must confess, I’ve pretty much given up on English-Canadian cinema in recent years. Too many of the movies seem centered around addictions or dysfunctional families, subjects already tilled and brought off successfully by so many filmmakers. And since I don’t trust Canadian film critics on our movies – their raves are suspect as they are generally quite soft on the merits of the local product; I wrote a piece on this subject many years ago where our (then) leading reviewers admitted as much – I’ve opted out of attending  most of those releases. I was impressed by Andrew Cividino’s tough- minded coming-of-age debut feature Sleeping Giant (2015) – he’s a director to watch – but that was about the only one I think I checked out. Until now, when I dropped by my local multiplex a few days ago to see Mina Shum’s Mediation Park – on its last showing there, alas – mainly because it featured two of my favourite Canadian talents, Sandra Oh and Don McKellar, and because I had fond memories of Shum’s own feature debut, Double Happiness (1994), which starred Ms. Oh, in her own feature film debut as a  struggling Chinese Canadian actress attempting to balance family expectations against her own wishes to carve out an original path in life. Mediation Park flips the script with the character at its core, an elderly woman, as Oh’s mother, but, like the heroine of Double Happiness, still trying to deal with how to live and be happy. As with Shum’s debut, the film is also a similarly sharply etched, well-acted character study that is utterly engrossing.

Set in Vancouver, where Shum moved with her family when she was one year old, the film opens with the  65th birthday celebration for Bing (Tzi Ma, Rush Hour, Arrival), who arrived with his now 60-year-old wife, Maria (Cheng Pei Pei, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), exactly 39 years earlier from Hong Kong. He’s a successful accountant who rules the roost and doesn’t allow his wife to work. Maria has been seemingly content with that subservient role until she finds some incriminating evidence in her husband’s discarded pants pocket the day after the party, which leads her to realize that he has been having an affair. 

What follows is part detective comedy – as Maria surreptitiously and amateurishly  follows her spouse around town to try to figure out the who and wherefore of that illicit relationship – and part independence drama as she slowly comes to an awareness, buried quite deep until now, that there is more to her existence than being an appendage to her domineering husband. I’d call it a Chinese take on An Unmarried Woman (1978), but Meditation Park is more subtle and reined-in than Paul Mazursky’s atypically obvious film.

It’s also a beautifully crafted take on the immigrant experience. I am the child of European Jewish immigrants to Canada so I can certainly relate to aspects of this movie from small universal details concerning language (Maria, being mostly housebound, doesn’t find the need to speak English much while her husband out in the Caucasian world pushes his second language on her, despite her discomfort) to specific cultural ones, such as Bing’s constant worry about saving face in front of others. But Shum, who co-produced, wrote and directed the movie, also avoids the clichés often lurking in such material. The reason why Bing has disowned his son Charlie (an off-screen character), which has much to do with Maria’s eventual rebellion against her husband’s edicts, is not at all predictable and, in fact, is so trivial as to be utterly believable when you consider Bing is an insecure patriarch who must always be the centre of attention. And the way Maria confronts her husband – and his mistress – is never laid out in a straight line as it would be in so many pat American dramas.

Tzi Ma in Meditation Park.

Meditation Park is acutely realized in its characters, from the quiet way Maria deals with the shock of her husband’s infidelity to Bing’s pathetic but almost pitying attempts to assert control over his family. And it also manifests itself smartly in the way their daughter Ava (Oh) pushes her white husband Jonathan (Zak Santiago) away even when he tries to help with the rearing of their two children. Without being aware of it, she’s so internalized her anger at her mother’s perceived bowing and scraping to her father that she overreacts the other way, refusing all help even when it is sorely needed. (It’s not a large role but it offers Oh a chance to do some of the best acting of her career.) Bing, for his part, appears to accept the fact that Jonathan is not Chinese but he also slyly browbeats him, as when he forces him to partake of Bing’s favourite libation, Coke and red wine. But even the portrait of Maria is unique. In some ways she likes her normal no-drama relationship with Bing just the way it is, as when he buys her things or takes her out to lunch or dinner which, out of guilt or playing a paternalistic role, or both, he does quite often. Pei Pei is one of those accomplished actors who acts with minimal movements; it's all in her expressions and eyes.

I liked, too, the comic aspects of the movie, notably the chorus of eccentric and feisty Chinese women (Alannah Ong, Lilliam Lim, Sharmaine Yeoh) who illegally rent out their driveways and backyards to visitors to concerts and sporting events and befriend Maria. Don McKellar offers another stellar performance as Gabriel, who begins as a foil to the women by undercutting them in the parking rates and then becomes Maria’s friend when she chastises him about his ill-mannered behaviour. It’s not a comic part, as you might expect or assume from McKellar, but a deadly serious, even tragic one, aced by this multi-talented actor/writer/director.  (I should add that those expecting a reunion of Oh and McKellar, who memorably starred opposite each other in his sublime science- fiction directorial debut Last Night (1998), will be disappointed, as they never appear together in Meditation Park.) Liane Balaban (New Waterford Girl, The Grand Seduction) also contributes a very tender scene as Dylan, Charlie’s kindly fiancée, who drops in to meet his mother, whose existence he has not known of until recently. Notably, unlike too many female-centric films, Meditation Park is also generous to its male characters, including Jonathan, Gabriel, and even Bing -- though, admittedly, he's really hard to like. 

Occasionally, Mediation Park does seem underpopulated – a perpetual problem in most Canadian movies made outside of Quebec – but that’s a minor cavil. It’s also nicely photographed by Peter Wunstorf, who adds much Vancouver flavour to Shum’s skilled direction.  It’s ultimately a modest, unassuming picture, which might cause some to overlook it – and might explain its short theatrical run in Toronto despite uniformly strong reviews – but that would be their loss. Astoundingly, this is only the fourth feature for Shum in 20 years (Double Happiness was followed up by the flat Drive, She Said (1997) starring the bland Moira Kelly, and another Oh picture, Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (2002), which I don’t think I’ve seen. (If I have, I've forgotten it.) She’s mostly done TV in the interim, which, I suppose, might be her creative choice but I doubt it. That’s not a long oeuvre for a talented director like Shum but it’s certainly indicative of  the vagaries and difficulties in consistently getting movies made in Canada, and there don’t seem to be all that many movies depicting Canada’s large Chinese-Canadian communities.  On the basis of Shum's fine debut and now this small gem, I can’t help but wonder what more delights she could have given us over the years.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and just finished teaching a course at the University of Toronto's Continuing Education program entitled Sight & Sound: What Makes a Movie Great?, which will he will also teach, beginning in Feb. 2019. 

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