At the Vancity Theatre just two weeks ago, a young sword-brandishing Cheng Pei-pei could be seen flying through the air in the 1966 martial-arts classic Come Drink With Me. Only a few months prior to that, the legendary Chinese actor—now a serene and still beautiful 71 years of age—was sitting in a room at the Sutton Place Hotel, talking to the Straight about the previous night’s triumphant gala premiere of local director Mina Shum’s Meditation Park at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Opening Friday (March 9), the latest film by Vancouver’s Mina Shum tells the story of Maria (Pei-pei) and her errant husband, Bing (Tzi Ma, Arrival), whose affair with a younger woman prompts Maria to discover the freedom she never had as a housebound and supplicant immigrant wife.
Bumping into Shum on the way to the interview, the Straight jokingly asked if her star used wires for the part.
“No,” answered the filmmaker, “but she actually didn’t know how to ride a bike.”
“Also I don’t know how to swim,” a laughing Pei-pei later admits. “After my 70th birthday I fell down at least 10 times, so my body at least physically cannot move very well. So I have [daughter] Jennifer help me do all the riding, running, and swimming parts.”
Laughing again, she adds: “Now the older Chinatown people know that I don’t know how to ride a bike.”
A little more poignantly, Cheng reveals that Shum’s script jogged memories of her time raising children in Los Angeles, when this major star all but disappeared from the screen for almost two decades.
“I was just a housewife,” she says. “I didn’t do anything of my own. I helped my husband. I worked for other people, lived for other people. It’s not me anymore. But I’m still very happy.”
Putting such tact aside, she also mentions things “you never want to remember. You put it in the past. With this, I start to more remember the details, like I need to ask my ex-husband for everything. I never go to see my parents for first seven years because I married my husband. He didn’t even want me to make a phone call. It come back to memory.”
On a happier note, Meditation Park also gave Cheng the chance to discover some of Vancouver’s older and more enchanted neighbourhoods. The film is a love letter to Chinatown and Hastings-Sunrise, captured before they meet the inevitable bulldozer and marketing teams, the bag and parking ladies clustered near the PNE (po-pos) now enshrined on film forever.
Shum has devoted much of her career to describing the Chinese-Canadian immigrant experience. What would Cheng say about the charges of racism injected into dialogue about the city’s staggering housing bubble?
“I feel Vancouver is more like my home,” she answers. “Like Hong Kong, like Los Angeles. To me, I can’t see the difference between cities that have so many immigrants. I think it’s maybe not a good thing, especially for the Chinese, to make the real estate that high. But to me, as a human, I love to see the universal. I think Vancouver is one of the cities that is very fair to all the races.”
Writer-director Mina Shum will attend a Q & A following the early-evening screenings of Meditation Park at the Cineplex Fifth Avenue on Friday and Saturday (March 9 and 10).