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Classy & Powerful

In a directorial career of more than a quarter century, Mina Shum has directed short and feature-length films and documentaries, as well as episodic television and a TV movie. Known for her outstanding debut feature, the semi-autobiographical Double Happiness (1994), which made Sandra Oh a star, Shum is a versatile independent director.
—MONTAGE

by David Spaner

Acclaimed independent director Mina Shum has both glass and bamboo ceilings to contend with. “Maybe the reason I’m so persistent is because I am an underdog,” she says of her more than 25-year film career. “I think there’s a lot of good will [towards women and people of diverse origins]. We go through waves of awareness, like in the ’90s, [when] Clement Virgo and I came out of that programme at the Canadian Film Centre of people of colour and diverse voices. Well, we’re seeing that wave again. It means the problem wasn’t solved in the ’90s.

     “You have the NFB saying 50 percent of the work will be female-driven. Telefilm just announced a policy about parity for women. And yet a study just came out that last year there were less females in the director’s chair in Hollywood than previous years.” (It showed that 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films of 2016 were directed by women, down 2 percent from 2015.)

     “Let’s see what I do after this,” she says to Montage of her upcoming feature film Meditation Park. “I can be your litmus test on that.”

     Shum tells me that she was driving in Vancouver when she got the inspiration for Meditation Park. Shum’s mother leaned across the front seat and in Chinese whispered, “The cat caught a new fish.” The line startled Shum. “I went, ‘Woah! She was saying, ‘Your friend’s going through this thing,’ meaning her husband’s seeing someone else,” says Shum. “The way she said it to me, something snapped and Meditation Park—the character, the whole thing—came to life. So I sat down and wrote it.” Shum has spent considerable time meditating on her relationship with her mother, so the script came quickly. “Her idea of what it is to be a woman is very different from my idea and yet she taught me to be liberated, and so I immediately went, ‘This is a film in which I can really investigate that difference.’”

Shum emerged as one of the acclaimed Vancouver independent filmmakers of the 1990s West Coast Wave. Her first feature film Double Happiness was a stunning success in 1994, debuting at the Sundance Film Festival before winning prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). As persistent as any West Coast Wave filmmaker, Shum followed Double Happiness with two features, Drive, She Said (1997) and Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (2002). Since then, she’s done considerable television work, including the TV movie Mob Princess (2003) and the classic B.C. series Da Vinci’s Inquest, for which she received a DGC nomination for directing an episode. Shum recently was a director consultant on a project in development called Late to the Party.

     While Shum has enjoyed television work and is excited about the range of TV forms these days, she’s also concerned by the lack of Canadian production in B.C. “There isn’t enough indigenous Canadian production in fiction on the west coast. We have Romeo Section. There was Motive. That’s it. In terms of opportunities to tell stories from the west coast and get work as a director, it’s very hard living in Vancouver.”

     As for feature work, Shum continues to plow through diminished resources to find ways forward. “By any means necessary. That’s really how I think. I just feel really driven.” Her passion for Canadian film moved her to join the board of Reel Canada, which screens Canadian films to Canadian audiences. “That’s a way for Canadian cinema to be embedded in culture because they’re going to high schools, ESL classes and remote communities.” Like Shum’s earlier films, Meditation Park is proudly set in Vancouver. “If I had to, I’d shoot it in my house,” she says, adding quickly: “I’m not going to.”

     Now, with Meditation Park in production and her stunning 2015 documentary Ninth Floor making TIFF’s top ten Canadian films list, Shum’s ardent, personal touch is back on Canadian movie screens. 

     The day Shum finished the first draft of Meditation Park, Ninth Floor was green-lit. When the documentary idea was brought to Shum by National Film Board producer Selwyn Jacob, she listened attentively to the story of six black students at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (later amalgamated with Loyola College and renamed Concordia University) who charged a white professor with racism in 1969. The resulting student uprising included an occupation and severe damage to university computers. Jacob told her the six students from the West Indies were under surveillance and there was an infiltrator, a black CIA agent loaned to the RCMP. “I immediately went, ‘Oh my god, this should be a feature film. I started pitching him fiction.’ But he said, ‘No, it’s got to be a documentary.’”

     So one of Vancouver’s best-known narrative filmmakers found herself making a doc. She soon was interviewing former university activists as intriguing as any characters concocted in espionage fiction. “If you were making a spy movie, each character would play an important part. You’ve got the father confessor, you’ve got the psychologist, you’ve got the antagonist spy.” Shum wrote a script infused with the drama of her fiction storytelling “and immediately the Film Board said, ‘Yeah, you’re green-lit.’ I spent six weeks in Montreal and Trinidad. Then I edited for a year.”

     Ninth Floor combines stunning new visuals with compelling archival footage and revelatory interviews to recreate one of the seminal student protests of an era of the ‘60s. The contrast of the vivid colours of Trinidad and the students’ blackness against Montreal’s bright white snow and the university’s concrete brutalist architecture is provocative. It’s the stuff of blurred identity and alienated ‘others’ that Shum’s been exploring since her first feature Double Happiness.

     The documentary was popular on the festival circuit, including a premiere at TIFF that drew most everyone who appears in the film. When the screening ended, the packed theatre was silent, then people began to rise, and Shum and her film received a prolonged standing ovation. At the Vancouver International Film Festival, Shum won the Women in Film and Television artistic merit award. It was a DGC finalist for the Allan King award for Excellence in Documentary in 2016. At Montreal’s World Film Festival, it screened in the room at Concordia where the protest began. “It was electrifying.”

     No surprise that the students’ resistance to racism was something that deeply moved Shum. She has always been acutely aware of stereotyping and it has figured strongly in her work. While some in 1969 Canada liked to think racism occurred somewhere else—Selma, Alabama, say, or Johannesburg, South Africa—Shum knows the painful slurs of Canadian schoolyards. The only white student protester interviewed in Ninth Floor movingly describes an anti-Semitic incident that spurred him to activism in Montreal. “I think Ninth Floor is a deeper exploration of some of the themes that I’ve always been obsessed with,” Shum says.

     “I’m interested in the underdog and how society sees this underdog. You may be an older Chinese woman in the Vancouver community and people look at you and think you’re a rich Chinese person from Hong Kong when you’re actually second-generation Chinese or you’ve been here since the 1960s. That attitude from society affects her in a way that may trickle down to her relationship with her husband. My characters never live in isolation from the rest of society. I’m fascinated by how people see each other. Even now, I’ll walk into an interview for a job and they’re not sure if I’m coming in for the craft service position or for the director job, just because of the way I look. So it’s personal.”

     Shum’s personal life and her art consistently overlap. She was born in Hong Kong in 1966, and her family moved to Vancouver a year later. While they moved around the city’s East End and suburbia, Shum’s constant was a passion for popular culture—absorbed by television, then music, then movies. She briefly aspired to be an actress and sang in a punk rock band called Out of Proportion. (“The one thing I take from that movement: question everything.”) At the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 1980s, she turned her attention to writing and directing films. The timing was right as she was about to become a core player in the West Coast Wave that broke out of UBC’s film school.

     In 1989, the nuclei of this wave came together on the set of UBC student John Pozer’s The Grocer’s Wife. There were eight future feature filmmakers in the crew of this artsy exegesis on life in the industrial B.C. interior, including assistant director Shum, boom operator Bruce Sweeney, production designer Lynne Stopkewich, and editor Reg Harkema. All involved were pleasantly shocked when The Grocer’s Wife screened at Cannes and won a special jury citation at TIFF. The film’s success showed these UBC students that it could be done, so a Vancouver indie scene was born that would soon produce Sweeney’s Live Bait (1995) and Last Wedding (2001), Stopkewich’s Kissed (1996), and Shum’s Double Happiness.

     Double Happiness is about a young woman (Sandra Oh) pulled between her traditional immigrant family and the “destroy tradition” ethos of Vancouver’s punk scene. “I made the film just like I’m about to make the next film—because I had something I wanted to see in the world,” Shum says. “I didn’t see people that reflected my experience on screens. I was telling my sort of semi-autobiographical story and so when it went to Sundance and won the best first feature at Berlin and got picked up by New Line, I had no idea that was going to happen. You don’t aspire to those things. You hope one Chinese girl in the audience realises she’s not alone anymore after you make a film like that.”

     On screen and in her own life, Shum continues to probe that film’s relationship themes. “When Sandra Oh in Double Happiness can’t move out, can’t tell her parents what she really wants, what kind of power is being exercised? How is that a microcosm of a larger societal issue, of race, of feminism, of tradition versus the new world? If you were going to crystallise my stories, that’s always the beginning for me. I’ll see a power struggle in some way and I’ll go, hm, there’s something interesting in that.”

     Double Happiness was that rare Canadian film that resonated viscerally with a wide audience. It was a new take on the old Clark Kent–Superman identity crisis — and who doesn’t have more than one identity? Someone might have four or five—an identity on a film set, another at a punk gig, another at a family Christmas dinner. Actor Tom Scholte was a first-year UBC theatre student home for Christmas in Scarborough when he went with his parents to see Double Happiness at a neighborhood mall. “To be at a Canadian film with my parents and have us all walk out satisfied was a great moment,” Scholte said. He returned to Vancouver determined to be part of the indie film scene and landed a role in Shum’s second feature Drive, She Said.

     Shum and filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming have been close friends since 1989 when Fleming let her apartment be used as a dressing room for the nearby Grocer’s Wife shoot. “All of Mina’s films are very personal and they talk to things that are very close to her. Like her personality, I think she always wants to put forward ultimately a positive message—that love is possible,” Fleming says. “Mina is remarkably resilient. She’s inspirational in that way. She’s a great person to get a pep talk from and hopefully I’m that person for her when she needs it.” 

Before making Ninth Floor, Shum spent four years developing a “big-budget accessible comedy” that came close to production. “The producers changed hands on that project so nothing happened with it,” she says. After that experience, she welcomed a return to her low-budget Canadian roots. She wrote the script for Meditation Park and received production funding from the Canada Council, the B.C. Arts Council and Telefilm. Shum is excited about the remarkable cast she’s assembled: Chinese stars Cheng Pei-pei and Tzi Ma, and Canada’s Sandra Oh, Don McKellar and Jessica Paré. “That’s the one thing I missed when shooting the doc. I love creating magic with actors.”

     Shum’s style is narrative but with cinematic twists—at times nonlinear with wholly unexpected imagery. “In Meditation Park, you’re suddenly looking at a photo album,” she notes. “My stuff is character-driven. A cinematic epic treatment of small intimate stories. That’s what I aim to do.”

     When I spoke with Shum at her East End home in January, she was having trouble sleeping. “I’m in prep,” she explained. “My mind is racing. In prep is where all the wars are won. If you’re organised, you’ve thought of many of the eventualities, so that when you get to set, you’re present. I want to create an environment where everybody gets to shine. I’m not going to do the job of the camera assistant, but I’m so detailed in my prep that I can make her job easier. You know, ‘We’re going to need a focal length of 500 mill here probably.’ It’s almost like if you know the script well enough you just throw it away so that you’re present for the actors, present for your crew, present for the other collaborators. To me, that’s where magic happens.

 “I pre-visualise the film, but when I walk on set, I can adjust when the actor goes, ‘I don’t feel right sitting down here, I want to race across the room.’ I would hate to make a film where everybody just said yes to me.” Shum says she is receptive to “a good idea from anybody, but I also know when an idea is going to steer me in a different direction than the vision of the movie. It’s less in Canada that they [the producers] say ‘final cut’ or not final cut. I’ve gotten to do my film work the way I pretty well wanted.”

     The film inspired by her mother in her car is now about a 60-year-old Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to Vancouver 40 years ago. “Raised her family, never had a job, devoted to her husband, now she’s a grandma. The day after her husband’s 65th birthday she’s doing laundry and discovers an orange g-string thong in his pants. She realises that she can’t say anything because she’s powerless in this country. She’s shaky in her English, she doesn’t have her own bank account, she’s never had a job, and she’s really been the isolated immigrant woman. One foot in tradition and at the same time teaching her daughter to be everything she can be. She steps out into her world for the first time, into Canada really.”

     Through shifting markets and technology, Shum has maintained her focus and her passion. “I’m a storyteller. Every morning I write. I’ll write scenes for films that don’t exist. I’ll write just to see if I can get an idea. My job is to be ahead of the curve. So if there’s 15 Dracula movies, I’m not going to come up with a Dracula movie just to be part of the Dracula group. I’m going to make Meditation Park.”

 

David Spaner coined the term “West Coast Wave” in his book Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest. He has worked as a movie critic, feature writer and editor for numerous publications. His latest book is Shoot It! Hollywood, Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film.

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