Three Films by Mina Shum with Sandra Oh

My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).

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Last Night (1998)

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

Is the way the characters deal with the inevitable end of days ‘Canadian’, for example? There’s anger around the edges, sure, but this is bourgeois, metropolitan Toronto, so there’s also a sort of decency still — Sandra Oh’s character Sandra scours what’s left on the shelves of a supermarket, but assiduously puts back what she doesn’t want. She’s on her way to her husband, but her car is destroyed by the rowdy youths on the streets. This leads her to the apartment of a local resident, Peter (Don McKellar), where she finds herself making (unanswered) phone calls to her husband, increasingly anxious as the end of world is counted down, by now mere hours away. Her husband meanwhile is working late at a gas company, likewise making unanswered calls to his customers (including Peter) to advise them that the gas service will be maintained until the very end.

As befits a script by an actor originally hailing from the theatre, Last Night has a staginess to it; I can easily imagine its small number of interior locations being recreated in that setting. But in some ways, the larger cinematic canvas seems to suit such an insular story: it makes the characters appear that much more alone together. There are several intertwined stories of couples: Peter’s parents who want to stage one last family Christmas (it’s not winter), his sister Jenny (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend, David Cronenberg’s aforementioned gas company executive and his dedicated female employee Donna, and Peter’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), more interested in fulfilling his sexual fantasies via a series of transitory hook-ups.

Perhaps it’s this last reaction that’s the most explicable given the apocalyptic framing story — it’s not getting darker, implying some kind of fiery comet strike — but what the stories all share in common is a need for human connection. McKellar uses the end of the world to focus on what’s most important for these people. Maybe this then is what’s most Canadian: an unflinching look at what is most primal in humanity, presented in a largely unadorned manner. Not a great deal happens in the film — it’s made up of a small number of little stories — but cumulatively they are about the connection of each of us to our fellow humans. Even the end of the world cannot sever that, McKellar ultimately suggests.

Last Night film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Don McKellar; Cinematographer Douglas Koch; Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2013).