Mina Shum returns to narrative filmmaking, after the stirring 2015 documentary Ninth Floor, with an intimate look at self-discovery in the later years of life. While her latest work Meditation Park reunites Shum with Sandra Oh for the third time, it is the phenomenal performance by the legendary Cheng Pei Pei that gives the film its foundation.
Pei Pei plays Maria, a devoted wife and grandmother who must reassess her life when she finds a woman’s thong in the pocket of her husband’s, Bing (Tzi Ma who also delivers a strong performance), laundry. Unsure of whether or not to confront Bing about her findings, Maria decides that it is time to starts taking charge of her own life. This is easier said than done as her English is limited and she has never had a job outside of the home.
Eventually settling on an illegal event parking scheme that several neighbours participate in, Maria uses here new income to help her spy on her husband in hopes of uncovering who the identity of his mistress. Regardless of what outside forces may be at play, her biggest challenge is coming to terms with the fact that Bing is not the ideal man she viewed him to be.
Meditation Park seems at its most comfortable when observing Maria’s occasionally comedic journey towards self-reliance; which is something the prideful Bing frequently discouraged. Pei Pei’s nuanced performance skillfully ensures that Maria never becomes a simple caricature of the senior experience. She provides layers to the role that adds to the subtle tension growing between Maria and Bing, and gives even simple facial gestures great significance.
While Shum spends a little too much time on Maria’s moments of personal discovery, one does not need to see her literally learn to ride a bicycle in one scene, only to master it in the next, the subtle beauty of scenes between Maria and an emotionally devastated Bing are something to behold.
Where the film stumbles though is in its lack of development regarding the thinly written supporting characters. There are subplots involving the growing stress in the marriage between Maria’s daughter Ava (Oh) and her husband Jonathan (Zak Santiago), and the illness that has inflicted the wife of shady neighbour Gabriel (Don McKellar), that fail to resonate on the emotional level that Shum clearly wants them to.
The same can be said for the arc involving the pending nuptials of Maria’s and Bing’s son, who we never see, and Dylan (Liane Balaban) which becomes the ultimate symbol of empowerment for Maria. The time wasted on these subplots could have allowed more breathing room for the complexities of Maria and Bing’s relationship. Especially when observing the hypocrisy of Bing, a man who places a high level of importance on order and appearances, but does not adhere to these standards himself.
All this makes for an uneven film that manages to stay afloat because of its wonderful lead performances.