The SAN DIEGO ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL SPRING SHOWCASE kicked off with its opening showing Canadian film “MEDITATION PARK”, directed by Asian Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum. It stars a lot of names which we are all familiar with such as Tzi Ma, Sandra Oh and Cheng Pei Pei, but more importantly it told a story about us, about family, about relationships and about culture. I do not want to go too much into what the film was about because I feel everyone (particularly those of us from an Asian background) should check it out and I feel it will relate and resonate with all of us the same way but also differently. I was able to watch the film at the festival, but also for those who want to check it out it is now available on Netflix. As a summary, this is the premise of the film (via Rotten Tomatoes):

Devoted wife and mother, 60-year-old Maria Wang’s life is altered when she discovers an orange thong in her husband’s pants pocket, forcing her to confront how powerless she truly is. Her efforts to find out the truth send her on an unexpected journey of liberation. 

For me personally, I saw my own mother watching the film, more so in identifying her journey from being more of a “subservient” wife and mother to now being an independent woman, who enjoys traveling and trying new things as an elder Chinese woman. But that is my personal take from it, and I feel everyone else’s may be the same or it may be different. I had the opportunity to have a sit down with director of Meditation Park MINA SHUM and actor in the film TZI MA. I must admit, meeting Ma is a bit of a dream of mine having grown up seeing him on so many TV shows and films over the years. I was almost tempted to ask if I could adopt him as my surrogate uncle, because in real life he has such an awesome, yet comforting demeanor about him. Anyways, here is my interview with both Mina Shum and Tzi Ma. Enjoy!

Watching the trailer to Meditation Park, the character of “Maria” (played by Cheng Pei Pei) reminds me of my own mother, her passage of migration with my dad to Australia during the 1970s and her devotion to us her kids and to family. Now that all of us kids are grown up, and she has more free time, I can see how much she enjoys this “freedom”. Do you feel this is a message the film intends to portray?

SHUM: The road to actualizing yourself is a long, crooked and often a surprising one. Meditation Park is a film about Maria and her journey of being powerless to having some power in her life. The message in the movie is that she is the most powerless. We all fee it. If Maria can find power, then we all can find power in our lives. I want people to dive into this world and understand that the feeling of family is one which is confusing and conflicting. And that they can feel some more courage from Maria’s character. 

MA: I think our part as actors in this film is to serve the “Maria” story. My character “Bing” is the major contributor to Maria’s journey. It’s also the primary relationship in the film. I feel that in order to facilitate this, each one of us has a job to do. It is like this happens in stages of a rocket launch. My character “Bing” is at both stage 1 and 3, where the other characters are at stage 2. So by the time everyone reaches stage 3, Maria is launched onto an amazing ride. By that time she is fearless of the empowerment which is cool because she has been powerless of so long that now the sky beckons her. It is a very powerful film and I am glad that we can serve that and the audience will appreciate it. 

Tzi, playing the character of “Bing”, how did you feel personally playing a character which is a devout husband and family man, yet also a cheating husband?

MA: I do not think that he was any less devoted to his family. I do not think that feeling ever diminishes. The affair is something that is kind of a figment that Bing took from all his life experiences. It also shows that Bing is also on his own journey of self discovery. This is the only affair Bing has, we do not see him having other affairs. It is also a unique circumstance in this relationship as it takes 2 to tango. The woman Bing has an affair with is also at a point in her life and both her and Bing share the same space of journey and self discovery. I think what the audience can take from this affair in the film is that the importance of the experience not the actual act. 

Mina, directing the film and Tzi being a primary actor of the film, did the premise behind the film make both of you reminisce on your own personal life experiences?

SHUM: The film was fiction but completely informed by my own experiences as a daughter of an immigrant woman living in this family. I didn’t realize how much I am lifting from my own life whilst making the film. Essentially it is also my own mother’s story. Bing and Maria have a grandson who is 7 years old who always wants to use Grandpa’s IPhone – this is also the story of my life. But the interesting part of Meditation Park is that you not only see the grandson wanting the phone but also you will see Bing having a strong relationship with his phone. The film was also shot a block from my house so it definitely is very narrative. Sometimes I can’t tell what is movie making and my own life. 

MA: As the director, the experiences in the film are all Mina’s. We as actors are just “fillers” and we fill in the blanks. Do we know this story? Yes we do. But as actors all these personal experiences we tend not to discuss as if we do it is the same as a magician revealing the secrets behind his tricks. It is best to keep it secret as we do not want to stop the director’s contribution to the film making experience. 

How is it working with Sandra Oh? Personally I have been her biggest fan since I first saw her on Grey’s Anatomy because she played a very strong, loud and independent character. 

SHUM: This is our 3rd film together. She definitely is the real deal and uber talented. I call her my “Deniro” if I am the “Scorsese”. It was funny because we were both at the film screening at Santa Monica and Sandra said ” when dad…” when referring to Tzi. This showed to me how tight knit the entire cast was and if we all ever work together again we can just easily dive in. I feel I have been spoiled to be able to work with such great actors. 

MA: We are friends and we know each other well but interestingly before Meditation Park we have never shared the screen together. I know what type of actor Sandra is and she knows what type of actor I am. We have opportunities to call each other and when that happens we just open up. When we shared the screen in this film everything was at neutral – as we had no expectations. With some people and actors you need to be prepared and some you don’t. We all had an opportunity to rehearse a little, and from that we realized that we didn’t need to be fully cautious because we had great working chemistry. All feelings and reactions the audience sees are immediate and we didn’t have to censor ourselves. You definitely can’t fake that. 

I would be interested to get some comments from both of you on whether you see changes in terms of the representation and visibility of Asians on both the Western TV and film screens? Has it changed over the years? Mina, how does it fair in Canada as opposed to other parts of the West?

MA: There are 2 different parts to this question. The first part is about visibility and I would say yes there is. Visibility for us Asians in the West is focused on us as foreigners. All my Asian American and Canadian actor friends are mostly in roles and work which portray them as foreigners. This is not saying that these roles and work is bad but what I want to see and what should be seen is a change in everyone’s attitude in how Asians are seen on TV and film in the West. What I mean is for example, when you go to LA you will meet many different people who will say that their neighbors are of Asian descent and will speculate or discuss where about’s in Asia they may or are from. It always becomes cultural rather than local and it is rare to hear about them talking about their Asian neighbors being transplants. That’s what we don’t see ( to highlight the second part of your question on representation) and it is what we have to see that we Asian Americans or Canadians or Asians from other parts of the West are an equal part of the fabric of society. In America, we Asians have been here for 6 – 7 generations at least and that’s what we need to be more vocal about in terms of talking to writers, directors and content creators. 

SHUM: I do not think of this issue as only a “Canadian” situation because this issue of visibility and representation is relevant to any English based media. I will say that though 14 years ago we didn’t have a “Christina Yang” – she was not portrayed as an immigrant but she was portrayed as a strong and no nonsense character. I think English based TV has done more of this than film. I feel like there is now more of a desire to make stories from a different lens and have these stories seen from a different lens. I was just in LA and realized that there is a growing ground swell of awesome Asian content being created because there are more Asian content creators.