Mediate On This: Our Review Of ‘Mediation Park’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - March 09, 2018
Mediate On This: Our Review Of ‘Mediation Park’

We often treat love like a destination, as though finding it is like scaling a mountain, staying on top, and basking in love’s warm glow. In practice, love is ephemeral and ever-changing; one day a warm summer breeze and the next a cool autumn wind. Love is at times dazzling, often befuddling, and always changing. Writer/director Mina Shum’s latest picture, Meditation Park, explores how love, independence, and identity exist in a constant state of flux. What begins as your standard crowd-pleaser offers surprising depth due to its astute script and a couple standout performances.

Meditation Park’s heroine, Maria (Pei-Pei Cheng) has spent her entire life serving the people around her; first as a dutiful daughter, then as a loyal wife, and finally as a protective mother. Now in her 60’s, Maria’s children have grown up and her husband Bing (Tzi Ma) is spending more time away from home. With no one to look after, Maria feels like she has been cut adrift. One day, while sorting through Bing’s clothes, Maria discovers a woman’s panties tucked away in one of his pockets. This harsh revelation forces Maria to consider her own purpose in life. And for the first time, that purpose is based on her own wants, needs, and desires.

Tonally, Meditation Park checks a lot of boxes. You can label this one a dramedy, but it’s dramatic moments resonated with me more than the jokes, which are fine, but too broad for my taste. Maria’s neighbourhood features an assortment of oddballs, each one armed with snappy one-liners. It’s tough not to crack a smile at the gang of Chinese grandma’s who gather to hawk illegal parking spots. The jokes are light, inoffensive, and serve as a solid counterpoint to the film’s weighty segments. And things do get heavy.

In its most solemn moments, the film looks at an immigrant couple’s struggle to acclimate themselves to a new culture, Maria’s quest for self-fulfillment, and the family patriarch’s existential crisis. This may sound like a lot to chew on, but it isn’t. Shum hits the dramatic beats required to keep the narrative from going off the rails. And coming in at a brisk 94-minutes, Meditation Park doesn’t offer any time for digressions. My biggest gripe with the movie is that towards the end, characters do too much telling us how they feel. These instances don’t entirely feel like exposition dumps since Shum manages to keep these “self-expressions” feeling honest within the moment; mostly because of her cast’s exceptional performances.

Bing is a tough character to pull off; in a lesser film, he would be a flat-out villain. Instead, he’s charming even as he’s sneaky; authoritative but still warm. This isn’t some horny man throwing his marriage away for a bit of ass. Bing becomes a relatable character because we see him searching for meaning in a world that has beaten him down. Credit goes to Shum for crafting a character with actual depth and not some villain to crucify. But you also must appreciate Tzi Ma’s incredible talent – Ma knows how to act the shit out of a scene. Even though viewers may not find Bing’s actions forgivable, by the end, they may find them understandable. And given how tribal and toxic our social discourses are these days, Meditation Park’s lesson in empathy delivers a message that we all can learn from.

As much as I enjoyed watching Tzi Ma’s Bing, Sandra Oh’s Ava, and Don McKellar’s Gabriel, this film doesn’t work without Cheng’s Maria. It’s as if the movie gods sculpted her face to be projected onto 50- foot screens. The sparkling eyes behind her smile are priceless and they hooked me from the opening frame. I found a moment as simple as watching Maria learn how to ride a bike as gripping as any action-movie car chase. To put it simply: Pei-Pei Cheng is a treasure. This woman paid her dues kicking people’s asses in action flicks and now she’s stepped up to whopping audiences with an emotional pummeling.

Meditation Park’s modest budget works in the film’s favour. It doesn’t have the glossy and pristine look of bigger budget films – that’s a great thing. Shum and her cinematographer, Peter Wunstorf, took to the streets of East Vancouver to bring their story to life. There’s a dynamic energy to certain exterior shots; they feel like someone set up a tripod on a street corner and just captured real life (this may sound like a criticism but it’s not). This aesthetic makes the world feel familiar and lived-in, which grounds the movie in the real world, even when characters are at their most histrionic.

Anchored by Pei-Pei Cheng’s charming performance, Shum has crafted a feel-good movie that still takes the viewer to uncomfortable places. Shum’s film is a spirited and insightful look at how we deal with love’s shifting phases. It’s also a pleasing lesson in empathy with an empowering message. Meditation Park may not be a superhero movie, but it does feature a Wonder Woman.

This post was written by
Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).
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