Zhu Shen didn’t plan to become a producer and filmmaker. Nor did she expect her filmmaking journey to change how she approached motherhood with her son, Perry. But she’s all the more grateful for it, and now considers herself to be a zen mom, taking a more relaxed approach to parenting. “Having that kind of [Tiger Mom] culture is very toxic,” Zhu says. “Through my film, I want to change that way of thinking to more of the zen parenting style, and let go of control and not just focus on achievement, but rather focus on the relationship, a child’s true happiness and them as a whole human being with their own agency.”
Her film, Journey of a Thousand Miles is a 90-minute feature documentary written, shot, directed, and produced by Zhu, currently in post-production. It’s an intimate look inside familial ties, spanning five decades that Janet Yang, the legendary Joy Luck Club Executive Producer and Governor of the Academy of Motion Pictures called “an ode to the bond between mother and son, told with radical vulnerability and honesty,” and “a deeply moving look into the love that binds a family.” Read below to learn more about the film, the inspiration behind it, and where Zhu’s relationship with her son stands today.
You were formally trained in biomedical research and business. How did filmmaking come about?
That’s the ultimate origin story. I really loved how I got into filmmaking. It’s one of those wild, unexpected turn of events in my life. Perry was nine years old and after learning from his teacher at the parent-teacher conference that he was reading at a high school level, I thought, ‘this is so exciting, but I want to give him some challenge because reading is such a solitary activity.’ He always loved going to bookstores with me — that was our Friday routine when he was in elementary school. So I thought, ‘how about getting him started off with writing some book reviews because he loves books.’
Soon, we moved on to movie reviews because animated movies are such a loved genre by families, especially kids. They have this affinity for storytelling. That’s how we got started with getting into our movies — through doing movie reviews. It was this amazing journey we took together as first-time filmmakers with Perry having done nothing in animation but very good at drawing and me having never done producing but learning along the way.
What inspired the creation of Changyou’s Journey?
In 2006, my late-husband Changyou Chen, a Stanford-trained cancer researcher, and biotech founder was diagnosed with skin cancer. We were confident he’d beat it because he had surgery and a good prognosis, but four years later, the cancer came back. I told Perry from the very start about his dad’s cancer diagnosis and the latest developments because I didn’t want him to be in the dark. I wanted him to know the truth and to be able to learn how to cope with it and go through it together as a family. In July 2012, the oncologist told me Changyou had two weeks to live. It was devastating news. And even though I knew he was getting weaker and weaker every day, I always had hope that he could still live longer.
I told the news to Perry that night and Perry just looked at me and was so stoic and so strong. He said, ‘mom, I think now I’m ready to animate daddy’s story. I want to give him hope to live longer, even if it’s just a few more days, or weeks because I’m going to create drawings every single day and that would be the first thing he will see.’ I was just incredibly touched by my son’s profound love for his dad and I thought, ‘how can I not support him? I have to do whatever it takes to help him make that film possible.’
I read that creating Changyou’s Journey with your son, Perry, helped you embrace the essence of being a Zen Mom. What does being a Zen Mom mean to you?
When Perry told me he wasn’t going to pursue art in college, even though he got scholarships from art schools, I was devastated. I felt like a total failure. I felt like after all these years of investment of time, resources, and energy, meeting directors, and being in the animation film industry, it was a waste of time. But at one point, I finally realized, that I should not be focusing on myself and what I want for my son. I may feel dejected and a failure but it’s about my son’s future. He has his own agency and his own vision of how he wants to live his own life. And I need to support that because I love him.
It’s not about achievement, and he could do whatever he wants because he is bright and talented, and I have no doubt that no matter what he chooses, he will be able to realize his own dream. Now we have the best relationship because I let go of control. Being a zen mom means no judgment, no expectation, and no attachment to the desired outcome. And letting go of your child and being there to support him for whatever he wants to ask for your support. It’s being there with him and being in the present moment and enjoying each other. That to me is the definition of a zen mom, and I’m still learning every day.
How has filming Journey of a Thousand Miles this time around been different than filming Changyou’s Journey in 2018?
For Changyou’s Journey, Perry is the ultimate visionary. He’s the director, writer, editor, character designer, and storyboard artist. I’m in my supportive role being the producer and executive producer, which means working with outside talents — a composer/co-producer, animator, background artists, animation mentors to Perry, and bringing them on to the project. Fundraising was also my main role so we could have funds for production and post-production. But in Journey of a Thousand Miles, I’m the creator. It’s my baby. I’m a first-time director tackling a very challenging personal documentary feature film — we’re talking about 90 minutes long versus five and a half minutes. So this time, I have my own vision. We have our role reversal. I’m the writer, director, and producer, Perry is my co-writer, co-producer, contributing cinematographer, and mentor — he is far more experienced in filmmaking than I am, but we’re still collaborating and communicating while I’m growing as a filmmaker and storyteller.
How has creating Journey of a Thousand Miles impacted you and your son’s relationship?
I think that we truly began to see each other as real people and not only as my vehicle for achievement, which I often saw him as in his younger days. I think coming from this deeply seated Chinese achievement culture and from this extremely competitive environment where I grew up when only 4 percent of high school graduates could go to college, six years after the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution when all colleges were shuttered, I became the tiger mom without knowing it. By focusing purely on achievement, I overlooked my son’s emotions and he was often suffering in silence because I was too domineering and overly confident that I knew what was best for him. He had no space to voice his own opinion, and so I learned to detach myself from that through working with a wonderful personal development coach Walker Clark, and gradually opened up to my son, including sharing a childhood trauma because I want my son to know me as a real person. I want to have a true connection and I want to break through this tug of war.
Gradually we moved from controlling and being controlled to this unconditional love that is not dependent on his achievement, but on who he is and for who we are to each other, which is truly a breathtaking change. It’s an odyssey that we took on all along the making of Changyou’s Journey and also Journey of a Thousand Miles. Our relationship changed to now becoming best friends, mentors, advisors, cheerleaders, and creative partners to each other.
What has been the most valuable lesson to come out of creating Journey of a Thousand Miles and Changyou’s Journey?
I’ve learned that even after a devastating loss of a loved one, my husband and Perry’s dad, which is similar to so many people in this country from the devastation of COVID-19, there’s so much life to live after loss. I’ve learned that we could hold our loved ones so dear in our hearts, by sharing our memories of them and sharing our stories with them to the world in service of others to help others grieve, feel less lonely, and make them feel that we’re all part of this humanity through our storytelling, which is so powerful.
More importantly, creating Journey of a Thousand Miles as a middle-aged first-time documentary feature director has been a fascinating adventure of self-discovery and personal growth. I not only learned to open up and be vulnerable with my son Perry in sharing my painful past in my desperate attempt to connect with him, but also learned to show my own vulnerable self on the screen as Perry challenged me to confront demons from my past. It has been cathartic with so many breakthroughs!
After taking Sundance documentary courses and connecting with many fellow documentary filmmakers on the D-word — a worldwide professional documentary filmmakers network, I found my own “tribe” of mentors, advisors, collaborators, and friends who are so passionate about nonfiction storytelling and eager to support each other. To my delight, there are many more women working in documentary films than men, an area where there is more diversity, equity, and inclusion, in comparison to other realms of filmmaking. I feel such a kinship and deep gratitude towards the women mentors, especially Heidi Reinberg and Diane Quon. I learned that my personal story from the perspective of a new Asian American mother and “knowledge immigrant”, navigating through parenting my free-spirited American-born child and my own evolving career, in the backdrop of loss and grief is rarely seen/heard, yet it connects deeply with my audience of diverse background and origins because of its shared humanity. I realize that my story is worthy to be told and that my voice is important to be heard.
What do you think your late husband would think about Journey of a Thousand Miles?
I think he would be very moved by the film. And also shocked by some revelations that he didn’t know and that I didn’t want to tell him because I didn’t want him to think of me in certain ways. I was not ready to be vulnerable, even with my husband, because of fear of judgment. But ultimately, I think he will be immensely proud of our effort to be so honest, open, vulnerable, and to help others heal and reconnect with their own families.
I think Changyou would be so happy to hear that through making Journey of a Thousand Miles and finally starting to work with a therapist, I reached out to my own father in Beijing, China to talk about his disapproval of my filmmaking endeavors – something that we never were able to talk about before, and finally broke through the “polite strangers” barrier to talking honestly about my feelings and what compelled to make this film. In the end, my father decided to support my filmmaking,
When I screened the work-in-progress sample of Journey of a Thousand Miles to virtual audiences last year, many who were parents with grown children told me that after watching my film, they were so moved and compelled, that they picked up the phone and call their adult children, to start talking openly and honestly about things that mattered to them that they were not able to discuss before. That is the ultimate goal of making this film – to spark heart-to-heart conversations among family members, and help Heal and Reconnect Families – many of them are estranged from each other. According to New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks’ 2021 article, “What’s Ripping American Families Apart?” Research indicated that more than one in four Americans are estranged from their family, about 40 percent of Americans experience estrangement at some point in their life. I think millions of people could benefit from seeing my film and start to develop a closer relationship with their own families.
Where can people watch your documentary?
A first in-person screening and director Q&A in San Diego’s La Jolla Library in celebration of Mother’s Day and Asian Heritage Month will be held on Tuesday, May 3 from 6-8 pm. Those interested can register here.
A Cornell film screening and panel featuring my two films (Journey of a Thousand Miles work-in-progress and Changyou’s Journey) in honor of Asian Heritage Month is set for May 25th, 2022 at 5-6 pm PST/ 8-9 pm EST. There will also be a virtual screening from May 18th to 30th ($10 per person ticket price).
To watch the Journey of a Thousand Miles trailer, click here.