The Gift Of Empathy: A Few Minutes With The Writer And Director Of ‘Mediation Park’

Posted in Interviews, Movies, Theatrical by - March 07, 2018
The Gift Of Empathy: A Few Minutes With The Writer And Director Of ‘Mediation Park’

Meditation Park tells the story of Maria (Cheng Pei Pei), a devoted mother and wife who discovers that her husband is seeing another woman. The film is a heartfelt dramedy that shows a great deal of empathy towards its entire cast of characters. After watching Meditation Park, I couldn’t wait to sit down with the film’s writer/director, Mina Shum, to pick her brain.

I caught up with Shum last fall during the peak of TIFF madness, and fortunately, the interview didn’t disappoint. It’s rare to get such a thoughtful, passionate, and charming interview out of a director amidst a festival press tour. During our conversation, Shum and I discussed how she commits to a story, Cantonese catch-phrases, and the funny way that inspiration strikes those who work their ass off.

Victor Stiff: How did you come up with this story?

I think the root of it probably came from growing up in a family with a mother that taught me to be empowered and liberated and educated and not needing anyone. At the same time, my mother was completely subservient to my father. [She] really served the family. Didn’t really make decisions on her own. Didn’t go out by herself. And growing up that was always such a juxtaposition. I would constantly go, “Mom, why not? Why can’t you go and get a job? Why can’t you do the things that you taught me are givens? I have to get a job, I have to go to school.”

At one point I was like, “I’m going to write a movie where my mother and I Freaky Friday and she gets to see what it’s like to go to a punk rock show and be in the mosh pit and I get to see what its like being subservient to my father.” But then after I had worked on a project for about four years, that didn’t happen and I was looking for a new story. There’s three, four themes I was thinking about, certainly age and grief. I was thinking about plutonic friendships, men and women. I have many male friends who are my best friends and society looks at a man and a woman together and they just can’t… Even the narratives of rom coms are you cant just be friends. Yeah actually, we can now.

VS: Rom coms are a bit unhealthy.

(Laughs) Yeah. So, I’m driving with her to the beach one day, I’m not writing, there’s three kids in the back of the car. And my mother leans in on me and she’s talking about her friend who had a husband who’s cheating on her and she says in Chinese, “The cat has caught a new fish.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “He’s taken on a lover.” And I was like, “That’s how you express it? The cat caught a…” She goes, “It’s a saying in Chinese.”

Immediately I was like, “I love Chinese, I love the Cantonese language, I love women [who] in Cantonese have a catchphrase for infidelity.” I started hearing stories of various women in my family suffering the infidelities of their husbands and not saying anything. And it was so foreign to me cause if that happened in my life we’d be in talk therapy, we would be split up. I’d be on Tinder by now, you know, on to the next thing.

VS: I can speak from experience when I tell you that you’re not missing much.

OK, I’m not? (Laughs). There’s nothing in the story that’s autobiographical but I definitely was taking Maria’s tenacity… My mother is the type of person that can be knocked down and she’ll get right back up and I really take a lot of inspiration from that in my personal life. And so those kinds of characteristics, my mom’s characteristics, bled into Maria. But the whole idea of the movie, once she said the cat has caught a new fish, hit me like a lightning bolt. I sat down and wrote it.

VS: Do you have a lot of ideas floating around in your head at any one time?


VS: So is that how it generally works? Do you get that lightning bolt of inspiration or is it more like going down a list of ideas and committing to the best one?

I’m very disciplined. It’s amazing how inspiration strikes when you work your f#@<ing ass off…you know? I would write every day. I wrote probably for a year where I’d write these scenes. Pitch me an idea for a movie and I just start writing in my brain. Pitch me an idea and I’ll start writing and then often they’re great scenes but they’re not a film. And I can tell that now, so I stopped doing that.

VS: I call that the Terrence Malick approach.

Right! (Laughs). It’s a good idea but it’s not a movie. So because of that, I’m very disciplined on hanging up. I’ll work on an idea but it’s very clear to me in a week whether or not it’s a movie. So then I’ll put that aside.

Finding an idea that becomes a movie is like falling in love and deepening the relationship. You can flirt with someone and think they’re really cute and think you’re in love. And then a week later, I find the real warts of this person. But then other times you meet an idea and it takes you deeper and that’s the one that becomes a film.

VS: And do you feel that you executed your initial vision?

I think so. Yeah, I do.

VS: Any part of making this film that still kind of nags at you?

No, not on this. I’m not that person that regrets anything. I believe that the obstacles, the triumphs, they come to you for a reason. Particularly on this film, it was a bit magical. I wish I had the wide shot at the end of the movie where I would be filming from another boat watching Maria on her boat but [with] our budget that was never a possibility. So I don’t regret it. There’s none of this, anything nagging.

VS: That’s awesome. I meet a lot of filmmakers that obsess over what they could have done better.

What was amazing was that when I walked into the room for the first-time rehearsal with those actors, the chemistry they already had. I knew we were off to the races.

VS: Cheng Pei-Pei has such an amazing and expressive face. The film opens up on her and it’s a simple shot but a mega-budget Transformers movie couldn’t capture that moment of movie magic. What’s it like to have a tool like that in your director toolkit?

Well, she is a very… that woman’s been acting since she was 17.

VS: And KICKING ASS! (See Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Come Drink with Me).

And Kicking ass! So this was a very different part for her in terms of, it wasn’t THIS (makes a big gesture), it’s this small expression that she had to get across. We shot the very last scene first (in the movie) because that’s just the way the schedule was. She’s on the ferry feeling empowerment, she hasn’t even done a scene with her husband yet. We hadn’t even done rehearsals. We shot that on Friday, rehearsals was the Sunday. We’re fully filming on the Monday.

VS: Sounds like fun.

Yeah. I didn’t know what to expect but when I directed her in that moment, and it’s also figuring out if you have the same language, and she opened up, and the sky is that colour, and the camera dollies around, I started to cry (laughs). I’m watching her and she’s bringing tears to my eyes and we haven’t even filmed the rest of the movie yet.

So I knew that she was invested in the part, she was willing to show her vulnerable side. That’s always a very strong indicator of how deep a character is gonna go, whether an actor is willing to take them there. How deep are you? How broad are you gonna be? How vulnerable are we gonna feel? How much of your face is gonna draw us in? Because the other thing about this movie is she doesn’t talk a lot in the beginning. She’s alone in the house for most of the movie. So it’s sound design, it’s her reactions, it’s her subtle work.

VS: Her face says so much.

It’s everything, yeah. I was pretty lucky the whole cast was amazing. Tzi Ma, the husband Bing, is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with.

VS: He had everybody in the theatre (sniff, sniff, sniff).

Yeah. (Laughs). He’s really good. He’s really, really, good. Oh good, that’s nice to hear. I haven’t seen the film with an audience yet right, so I’m getting the reactions from you guys. It’s awesome.

VS: It went over well in my screening. How do you pitch this movie to audiences?

I think it’s an uplifting empowerment tale about an unexpected hero who will inspire you to feel your strength. That’s what the movie is. It’s a film about, how we’re all in Meditation Park together just trying to find a little bit of happiness and harmony and peace. And life gets in the way. And sometimes we feel like we have no control, but we always have a choice and Maria being so unlikely as a hero, if she can feel power in her little world then anybody can.

VS: The relationships between the family members feel so heartfelt. Like most families, they fight, but they’re not cruel to each other. There is even empathy for the cheating husband. He never becomes the bad guy, even though in most films he would be the asshole. How did you approach making him more of a morally grey character?

As soon as Tzi flew in from LA I sat in an office with him and I said, “Any questions?” You always have that first meeting, we had had a phone call, but you know, “Any further thoughts?” And he said, “So I can play him as an asshole. Is that what you want?” I said, “No. He’s the most charming…charming, vulnerable human. We should be able to understand his journey,” and he went, “Great.” And we ran with that.

But that’s really every single character in the movie. I think one of the things about Meditation Park being the title, it’s a park in the movie but its also a metaphor. We’re all in Meditation Park. We’re all just trying to find a bit of shade, a bit of happiness, right in the middle of, “We’re gonna die,” right? We all know that, and yet, every day we get up and we live. So if you actually think about the person that you don’t know on the bus who took your seat and you think of them that way, as opposed to going, “That asshole who took my seat.” But to go, “Wow. Whatever they’re going through…” Recently, somebody broke into the car and stole something and my thought was, “Wow, they really needed whatever was in my car.”

VS: It’s a beautiful mentality

I think if we approach each other that way there’s more room. There is a great artist, a conceptual artist who is making signs, Jenny Holzer, one of her signs says, “Private property created crime,” cause if it wasn’t private we’d all share it. Right!

VS: Socialist!

(We both laugh).

Mediation Park opens March 9 in Toronto and Vancouver and will arrive in additional cities throughout the spring.

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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