Written and Directed by: Mina Shum
Meditation Park is somewhat unusual for a piece of a western cinema. Its protagonist is a non-white (Chinese), somewhat elderly woman with limited English skills living in Vancouver. Her name is Maria and she is a soft-spoken housewife. Western viewers (myself included, but-for what I learned at a Q&A session after the movie) may miss out on the irony of her being played by one of China’s most famous actors, martial arts movie veteran Cheng Pei Pei. Meditation Park’s notability as a film, however, is by no means limited to the characters it presents. The film is a realistic one, limited by the mundanity of Maria’s life. It nonetheless manages to captivate audiences by stirring up drama in Maria’s world. Briefly she is caught up in a horror movie as a drone of telephone rings overwhelms her. Later, she is the star of a comic-detective film, stocking her husband by taxi in a very-makeshift disguise. More regularly, she lives in a low-key fantasy world, accompanied by her quirky and colourful parking-business friends,
Meditation Park is a story about marital infidelity. What gives it its unique character, however, is that Maria, for a variety of reasons is unable or unwilling to show the emotion we might most expect of her when she discovers her husband’s indiscretions: anger. Maria’s husband Bing (character actor Tzi Ma, last seen in Arrival) is initially presented as a jolly, loving partner, but as the film develops his traditionalist-patriarchal side becomes more apparent. Arguably both his good and domineering sides play a role in keeping Maria from wanting to confront him. Regardless, what matters is that Maria does not confront him, and instead, ambitiously pursues self help by trying to fundamentally alter her own life story.
Maria’s angerless lifestyle allows us to see her in a number of interesting emotional lights. We see her fear, her empathy and her social awkwardness. One side effect of her not being able to express anger at her mistreatment is that she can come across as a bit light-headed. Through her character, audiences thus get a best of both worlds experience. On the one hand, she is satisfying to root for as your typical loveable loser. On the flip side, we know she is not in fact a naïve or oblivious person and as such we do not see her smiles in the face of defeat as a sign of weakness but as melancholy indications of her predicament. If there is one tragic exception to this rule, it pertains to Maria’s English skills. While she has a heavy accent, she is effectively fluent and never struggles to understand the English speaking characters around her. She nonetheless remains convinced throughout the film that her English is not very good, perhaps a sign of the inferiority complex she has towards her husband.
If I were to offer one criticism of the film it is that it prioritizes resolving its plot over maintaining its artistry. There were two moments where I expected the film to end: a scene where Maria participates in a silent disco, and a subsequent scene where Bing breaks down discussing aging. Both scenes would have made for fitting conclusions consistent with what is unique about Maria’s character (she resists without directly resisting and remains optimistic and loving in the face of sorrow). Nonetheless, the film’s more conventional ending is certainly pleasant enough to watch, and I cannot complain too much about getting to spend a few extra minutes with its characters.
Meditation Park also stars Sandra Oh as Maria’s overworked daughter who is in a (mostly) happy, egalitarian marriage; and Don McKellar (star of my favourite Canadian film, Highway 61) as Maria’s mischievously opportunistic but heartbroken neighbour Gabriel. Enjoyable as an educational, visual and narrative experience, Meditation Park is a solid film, and will hopefully get more screen time than it has received so far.