Film reviews

Vancouver International Film Festival: Meditation Park and The Hidden Sword

Nicholas Lay reviews two culturally contrasting movies from this year's VIFF...

Meditation Park

STARRING: Sandra Oh, Zak Santiago, Tzi Ma 

DIRECTED BY: Mina Shum
WRITTEN BY: Mina Shum

The perfect picture to open this year’s festival, Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum’s cuter than cute depiction of bittersweet self-discovery in East Vancouver is a triumph of local independent filmmaking. Starring the legendary swordswoman of Hong Kong cinema, Cheng Pei-pei (Come Drink with Me; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), cult character player Tzi Ma (Rush Hour; Arrival), and Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh, Meditation Park focuses on Cheng’s rooted-in-routine housewife, Maria, whose domestic bliss is shattered by the discovery of another woman’s thong in her husband Bing’s (Ma) trouser pocket.

What follows is a whimsical, altogether charming look at the conflict between tradition and family amongst the wider first wave Chinese-Canadian immigrant community that defines large areas of East Van today. Featuring bouts of discreet in-jokes and broad humour meant for both Vancouverites and the wider world, but with an underlying tone of nagging fear throughout the family unit, Mediation Park is Mina Shum’s (whose easy direction matches the natural bustling tone of East Van itself) way of saying, this is life; this is family.


The Hidden Sword

STARRING: Zhang Aoyue, Xu Qing, Chun Xia, Huang Jue, Geng Le, ChenKuan Tai

DIRECTED BY: Haofeng Xu
WRITTEN BY: Haofeng Xu

A throwback to the classic Shaw Brothers swordplay films of the 1960s and 70s, The Hidden Sword is an epic tale of honour, chivalry and, ultimately, vengeance in post-war rural China. Director Xu Haofeng’s – author of multiple bestselling martial arts novels and a rapidly rising period director on the local scene – ambitious action-comedy stars newcomer Zhang Aoyue, a dancer who recently eased into screen martial arts. Zhang plays the grandson of a master swordsman, famed for the training he provided a Chinese battalion in 1933, leading to an improbable, sword-only victory over the firearm wielding Japanese. Now, with the war over, a military imposter has come to the village, seeking to learn the old man’s secrets…

One for international martial arts purists, what stands out throughout the picture is the now far more usual absence of wires, stunt doubles or additional special effects during each action sequence. Surprisingly, however, it is the fight scenes infused with comedy that make more of an impression, as the straight action, though impressive in physical execution, at times lack the level of camera placement and editing sophistication regularly seen elsewhere in South East Asian cinema.

The plot, too, tends to falls flat. Exactly why certain events take place become lost in translation in amongst the bizarre timeline and shoddy continuity. What keeps the picture afloat is the cast and their respective characters. Demonstrating wonderful comic timing, the likes of Xu Qing, Chun Xia, Huang Jue, Geng Le, and ChenKuan Tai are a thoroughly likeable bunch who succeed in engaging us scene-to-scene regardless of the fading bigger picture. Another highlight is the funky score, which unashamedly utilises modern heavy bass lines and western themes alongside the usual traditional compositions.

Like its frequently wild Hong Kong swordplay ancestors, The Hidden Sword maintains a certain charm that, despite its faults, keeps it hanging on in the realm of enjoyable Sunday flick, rather than falling into almost chore-like territory.

Are you looking forward to seeing either of these two films? Let us know in the comments!

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