By Mandy Day
When award-winning filmmaker Mina Shum reached out to veteran actor Tzi Ma to work on her latest film, Meditation Park, it was a no-brainer for Ma.
Shum and Ma agreed that there are not enough stories about the Chinese immigrant experience being told. That combination, the opportunity to work with Shum, and the quality of the script made agreeing to be a part of Meditation Park an easy decision for Ma.
The film embraces the cultural differences between immigrants and their western-born children through a riveting story about a sixty-year-old woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after learning of her husband Bing’s infidelity. Caught between her loyalty to her family and her desire for independence, Maria, played by Pei-Pei Cheng , forges deep bonds with her neighbors while restoring a strained relationship with her daughter Ava (Sandra Oh). Shum and Ma, who played the husband, sat down with AsAmNews for an interview prior to the screening of Meditation Park which opened the Eighth Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase last Thursday.
Both traveled to San Diego for their first experience with the Asian Film Festival. They settled into a booth in the reception area of the UltraStar Mission Valley for our interview. We discussed the inspiration for Meditation Park, the importance of telling stories relevant to immigrant communities, and their experiences with generational conflict. Ma, known for his roles on 24, the Rush Hour franchise, and Arrival, was drawn to the project in part because the film had a single writer/director. “A lot of times, too many cooks in the kitchen, it’s not so fun,” he told us when comparing Meditation Park to larger projects he has worked on. He went on to discuss how the film was exquisitely written with a poetry not often seen in screenplays.
Having seen several films Shum has written and directed, she has a history of developing strong female characters, yet, prior to seeing this film, I had a sense that the Cheng Pei-pei’s Maria was different from the average cinematic female protagonist. The film begins with her appearing completely submissive to her husband and child. Hesitant to say or do anything that might create conflict, she emulates the obedient and devoted wife that stereotypically portrays Asian women in film. But, there is something unique in the way Maria was created and how Cheng portrayed her. The subtle facial expressions and mannerisms of Cheng coupled with Shum’s direction gave the viewer a sense that unlike the often one dimensional portrayals viewers see in larger productions, Maria was special, she just hadn’t discovered it yet. The film takes us on that journey with her.
“I wanted to look at my mother’s generation and really give space and time to the difference between my generation and hers. That our mothers would often teach us feminism and freedom but not take any of that for themselves,” Shum told AsAmNews.
She talked about her own mother who would struggle with her own confidence in something like traveling to an unknown place alone, something younger generations often don’t give a second thought to. All of this comes through in how Shum wrote the film using Cantonese and English almost interchangeably.
“All those things I take for granted, don’t come as easily to her. There’s nervousness around her own ability. That is language, that’s a sense of agency, that’s education, that’s having no fiscal power, and it was something I always wanted to pay homage to in a story.”
While Maria is the main protagonist, she is not the only character who is openly conflicted. Ava, Maria and Bing’s daughter, acts as an intermediary between her mother and the son estranged from the family. Sandra Oh brilliantly portrays a woman who wants to bridge the divide between mother and son without upsetting the patriarchal traditions that is the foundation of her family. She’s outspoken, yet non-combative and it isn’t until Maria confronts her husband, that Oh is empowered to do the same. We discussed how these two women were so relatable to women in the Asian American or Asian Canadian communities because there often isn’t open family conflict. People just don’t speak to each other and use others to relay messages of importance.
The conversation often discussed important and deep generational and cultural topics like family conflict and loyalty, with the audience connecting to the characters because of how relatable they are to Asian Americans. If we grew up around other Asian Americans, especially first generation Asian Americans, we all knew a quirky group of middle aged Asian women who exercised together and came together over food or tea to let loose and grumble about their spouses and kids. The trio of women who comprised Maria’s first meaningful interactions with people outside her family played a significant role in the development of her character.
While there will be no end of film spoiler, this viewer would love to see how Maria’s life unfolds after the film ends, and whether Ava finally is able to resist the pull to be the everything to everyone in her family. Bing’s character seems utterly unlikeable yet a vulnerability unfolds by the end of the film that changes the lense with which the viewer sees him. Unlike Ma’s jovial demeanor, Bing is mostly reserved and his life with Maria is largely regimented. He emphasized that the project allowed him to share with the Asian community in western countries the story of us.
“I think you work, and you put your best work that you know how to put forward, but to be involved in a story, that’s telling you, about you is really important. To share with your own community the struggles of being an immigrant family, our trials and tribulations, and what we go through…We as Asian Americans or more American Asians don’t really get a chance to show ourselves that we are a part of the fabric of this society, so a lot of times we are always portrayed as foreigners. We are perpetual foreigners and we have been here for many many generations. so when you tell these kinds of stories, it brings the community together and we begin to see our neighbors as being as American as we are,” Ma told the audience in a post screening Q&A.
Shum emphasized that she wants non-Asian moviegoers to be able to relate to Asian characters like Bing and Maria in the same way that Asian Americans can relate to actors like Ryan Gosling.
Our interview ended on a light note, with Shum hoping to get in a visit to the beach and some good Mexican food before she flew back home. Toronto International Film Festival selection Meditation Park is a film perfect for an evening at home with humorous moments as well as heartfelts ones. The film was recently purchased by Netflix and can be watched on the app or website.
Ma is set to appear in a few episodes on the upcoming season of Silicon Valley, is currently filming a movie in China, and producing an upcoming film shooting in Calgary. Shum is much more covert on her future project. Simply put, she is working on an undisclosed Hollywood production.
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