IFE Film Review: Meditation Park is a feast for the soul

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Meditation Park is a very quiet film, but like its long-suffering protagonist, Maria (played by legendary Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng), those silences speak volumes.

Set in Vancouver’s diverse, rapidly gentrifying East Vancouver (aka “East Van”) neighborhood, Park is essentially a classic coming-of-age story with a 60-year-old heroine instead of a tween. And though some sequences feel overly familiar and a bit too goofy for their own good, deep down, anyone who has ever struggled to find their place in the world will surely identity with Maria’s journey of enlightenment.

Written and directed by Hong Kong-born Canadian Mina Shum, who has been telling intimate and often hilarious tales of Chinese immigrant families in Canada since she burst onto the scene with her irreverent indie smash Double Happiness in 1994, Park is also Shum’s third feature film with award-winning actress, and fellow Canadian, Sandra Oh. Known mostly today for her portrayal of Dr. Cristina Yang on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, Oh has been playing the Shum surrogate in Shum’s deeply personal oeuvre for years and her familiarity with Shum’s directorial style and pacing lends itself beautifully to her performance as Maria’s hard-charging, Americanized daughter, Ava, here as well.

Opening with a family birthday party for Maria’s husband, Bing (played by veteran character actor Tzi Ma), Park really picks up steam when Maria discovers a lacy, bright orange thong in Bing’s pocket while doing laundry the next day. Alternately startled, confused, and enraged, Maria is shaken to the core by the concept that her husband of close to 40 years is cheating on her. Unsure of exactly what to do next and even how to react properly to the news, Maria has never felt more alone or directionless, a situation that is amplified even further by the fact she speaks very little English, has never held a job in her adopted homeland, and cannot drive. Forced to make dramatic, and often painful, changes to the way she lives her everyday life, Maria gradually comes to realize that the world outside the confines of her very traditional Chinese home and marriage is much bigger and bolder than she had ever imagined.

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I know that all sounds a bit played out, but Cheng’s buoyant, irrepressible performance as Maria elevates the material considerably, especially during the film’s overtly dramatic scenes. Shum’s top-notch screenplay – which captures the specifics of the Chinese immigrant experience with remarkable wit and clarity – also helps immeasurably by telling a story we have heard before in a whole new light. For while Maria’s evolution from regimented housewife and mother to enlightened, independent woman might share some elements with genre favorites like Shirley Valentine, Eat Pray Love, or The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the fact that everything Maria needs to make herself whole and right again is located within walking distance from her front door is a refreshing twist.

Whether she is making friends with a trio of wacky parking space sellers (played by Lillian Lim, Alannah Ong, and Sharmaine Yeoh), hunting down and later confronting her husband’s mistress, or befriending her lonely Caucasian neighbor, Gabriel (Sensitive Skin’s Don McKellar), whose wife is dying of cancer, Maria’s journey of self discovery is filled with wonderful surprises throughout. Maria might not have a climactic moment of clarity on a windswept mountaintop in Nepal or backpacking through Bali, but the quietly confident woman she becomes by the end of the film will take your breath away just the same.

Meditation Park had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is now playing on select Virgin Australia, China Southern, and Emirates flights worldwide.

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