Return to tiff.’s home page

Canadian Film Encyclopedia

Shopping Cart

Mina Shum

Director, Screenwriter
(b. January 1, 1966)

Mina Shum is a Vancouver-based writer and director who has made a name for herself as one of the best comedic filmmakers in contemporary, independent Canadian cinema. She has directed three features and numerous shorts, which have garnered many national and international prizes (including the 20,000 deutschemark — approximately $16,000 — Wolfgang Staudte Award at the Berlin Film Festival) for their investigation and celebration of Chinese-Canadian identity from a female perspective.

Born in Hong Kong but raised in Canada, Shum earned a B.A. in theatre and a diploma in film production from the University of British Columbia. Her arts training began much earlier, despite the objections of her parents who wanted her to get a secure and steady job. At the age of 15, she began acting in and directing local Vancouver theatre productions, and singing in a punk band and working as a concert photographer.

Success as a filmmaker came relatively early. Her first short, Picture Perfect (1989), was nominated for best drama under 30 minutes at the 1989 Yorkton Film Festival. Within four years, she was winning major national prizes: her documentary Me, Mom and Mona (1993), about the women in her family, took the special jury prize for best Canadian short at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1993. As a director-in-residence at the Canadian Film Centre, Shum developed her first feature, Double Happiness (1995), and autobiographical comedy became her métier.

Double Happiness tells the story of Jade Li (Sandra Oh) and her struggles to find happiness as an artist and a person in the face of her family’s needs and demands — a story which has clearly resonated with Shum’s own life. The film premiered at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival (where it won a special jury citation for best Canadian feature film, and later, a Genie for Sandra Oh for best actress). The film also screened at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and won prizes in Vancouver, Berlin and Torino, Italy. “The most fortunate thing about Double Happiness,” Shum told The Peak’s Monique Harvey, “is the critical acclaim it has received, which has moved me beyond the token figurehead, the ‘Oh, she’s the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker from Canada.’ It’s the ‘She’s the award-winning filmmaker from Canada.’”

The success of Double Happiness led to a period at the National Film Board’s Studio D, teaching, directing and conducting screenwriting workshops. Shum told Harvey that she approaches her work by living, breathing and eating film — and having important artistic influences, such as Woody Allen. Like Allen, she tends to work in the auteurist style with a small stable of intimates. “Because, as a director, what you are essentially doing is conducting a band. And the band consists of Sandra Oh as the lead singer; the guitarist will be Peter Wunstorf, director of photography; the production designer is your bass player and your producer is the drummer. And it’s my job to conduct and write it.” And, like Allen, her films are thoroughly self-referential.

Her second feature, Drive, She Said (1998), again stars the inimitable Sandra Oh in what is essentially “a romantic comedy about falling in love with oneself and the freedom of the human spirit.” Unlike some of Allen’s latest films, however, Shum rejects the equation of smartness with cynicism. “You don’t have to be cynical to be smart,” she told Harvey. “You can be melancholy-optimistic, which is where I’m at. Because, like I said, I believe in the goodness of human nature. But, I also know that life is really rough.”

This theme carries over into her third feature, Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (2002), in which 12-year-old Mindy Ho (Valerie Tian) resorts to Taoist magic to help her financially strapped mother, Kin (Sandra Oh), and learns the value of hope and being herself in a difficult world. The film premiered at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, establishing Shum as a Canadian auteur with staying power.

Film and video work includes

Picture Perfect, 1989 (director)
Shortchanged, 1990 (director; writer; editor; producer)
The Diary of Evelyn Lau, 1993 (actor)
Me, Mom and Mona, 1993 (director; writer; editor; producer; actor)
Drive, She Said, 1998 (director; writer)
Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity, 2002 (director; writer)

Related Entries