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Local mother and son collaborate on documentary film

Torrey Hills residents
Torrey Hills residents Perry Chen and his mother, Zhu Shen, stand with a poster of Chen’s animated film, “Changyou’s Journey,” based on the life Chen’s father and Shen’s husband.
(Courtesy of Bamboo Shoots Productions)

La Jolla library offers a preliminary peek at “Journey of a Thousand Miles” and showing of Perry Chen’s “Changyou’s Journey

Torrey Hills resident Zhu Shen recognized her son’s artistic talent at an early age.

Like many mothers do with their children, she doted on her son, Perry Chen, and encouraged his creativity, including writing, drawing, crafts and animation.

Then came the time she realized her attention was being rebuffed. She needed to reassess her outlook and relationship with her son, now a 22-year-old senior at UC Irvine.

Shen, with the collaboration of Perry, is documenting the evolution of their lives together in their film, “Journey of a Thousand Miles.”

Mother and son will offer a glimpse of the movie, a work in progress, as well as Perry’s film co-produced with his mom — “Changyou’s Journey” — on May 3 in a celebration of Mother’s Day and Asian Heritage Month.

The event will be held by Shen’s Bamboo Shoots Productions in a partnership with the La Jolla Riford Library, Warwick’s bookstore and Coffee Ambassador from 6 to 8 p.m. at the library, 7555 Draper Ave., La Jolla. Information and registration is available through https://www.journeyof1000milesfilm.com/

The “Journey of a Thousand Miles” screening poster
The “Journey of a Thousand Miles” screening poster
(Courtesy of Bamboo Shoots Productions)

A question-and-answer session, moderated by Lei Guang of the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, will follow the screenings.

“This is a deeply human story, an immigrant story, and above all, a story about (a) family and parental bond with a talented, free-spirited child,” Guang said in a news release.

Shen describes the movie as “a personal documentary made by a mother inspired by the love for her son and co-producer.”

The film, she said, should appeal to a wide audience and those who have endured grief, especially considering the catastrophic effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

Perry Chen and Zhu Shen on Mother’s Day 2007
Perry Chen and Zhu Shen on Mother’s Day 2007
(Courtesy of Bamboo Shoots Productions)

Her own deeply personal grief arose from the death of her husband of 24 years. He was a cancer researcher whose life was taken by the disease he was studying.

“I felt this deep anger in me,” she said. “I just felt like it was so unfair — why it happened to us. A lot of people now are asking the same question.

“So what I’ve learned is that the best way for us, or for me at least (and) for our family, to go through loss and grief and recovery is through telling our story because then we’re not wallowing in grief and despair.

“To make this film keeps us busy and engaged so we can think about my husband and Perry’s dad — think about memories we have and the legacy he left. He touched so many lives. He was a great mentor to his students. ...

“Making this film gives us this creative outlet to make a story about someone we love. So those memories will be in the form of a film that will touch many lives.

“I felt personally that working on this film was my saving grace. I can focus my energy on this inspiring, positive endeavor and working with my son, even though we’ve gone through hell. It went from this tug-of-war to now we’re best friends. We’re creative partners. We’re each other’s cheerleaders and each other’s biggest fans.”

“Journey of a Thousand Miles” explores how Shen evolved from a self-described “tiger mom” to “Zen mom” as she worked with her son on developing Perry’s animated film dedicated to his father — “Changyou’s Journey.”

The boy was 12 years old and witnessing his father’s decline in his battle with cancer. Perry began working on an animated version of his dad’s life. He had already created an acclaimed animated film when he was 11.

“(Perry) said, ‘Okay mom, I’m going to animate this story because I want to keep Daddy alive for as long as possible. I will draw every single day, so the first thing he will see in the morning would be my drawings of this animation. I just hope my story, my animation, give him hope,’” Shen said.

“I was just so touched by his words, his profound love for my husband. ... I thought, ‘How could I not support that?’”

Perry shared a one-minute trailer with Changyou five days before he died.

“He was very proud of Perry,” Shen said of her husband. “When he was growing up, Changyou wasn’t too crazy about him becoming an artist. ... He preferred to have Perry take on a STEM career like he and I did, and to be an engineer, a scientist or even a lawyer or doctor. ... When he saw how good Perry was in the arts in the last years of his life, he felt, yeah, he could support that too.”

To honor his father, the son decided with his mom’s support and involvement, to make a film telling the story of his late father’s life. The film eventually was completed in six years and generated more recognition for the youngster at film festivals.

It wasn’t easy.

Shen, who was born in Shanghai and raised in Beijing, was motivated to guide Perry on the road to success from an early age.

Shen is the daughter of parents who were highly educated and accomplished. They also ran afoul of political leaders during China’s Cultural Revolution and were sentenced for several years to a labor camp, where Shen spent some of her earliest years.

After her husband came to the U.S., Shen followed him by managing to convince faculty at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus to accept her and give her a scholarship. She accomplished the feat through a gutsy move — placing a collect call from Beijing to the admission board’s chairman.

She earned a PHD In biochemistry and an MBA as well. Eventually, the couple settled in Carmel Valley with her husband, a senior scientist working at a research company on the therapeutic development of cancer antibodies.

Like many immigrant mothers, Shen was determined to ensure the future success of her son, who went on to attend Canyon Crest Academy.

She guided her son in writing movie reviews for The San Diego Union-Tribune while he was in the fifth and sixth grades and restaurant reviews as well.

At 9 years old, he was interviewed on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. At 10, Shen helped him join the San Diego Press Club and Asian American Journalist Association.

As Perry grew older, Shen said, he became resistant to her pressure and threatened many times to quit the film that became “Changyou’s Journey.”

When Shen picked up the best-selling book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” written by Yale law school professor Amy Chua, she was repelled by the narrator’s behavior.

“I read the book, so I thought, ‘This is a terrible mother, like she would force her kids to do things they didn’t want to do, and there were no play days. — very, very strict — and it was all about her, like what she wanted her kids to be. I thought I’m not a tiger mom. I support my son in things that he loves and he enjoys and he’s really good at, and I’m nourishing his natural talent.

“It took years for me to realize I very much was a tiger mom myself during that time. I just didn’t have the awareness of how I was a tiger mom. ... I was still dictating what he did and his schedule, his activities. He didn’t have any say in this. So he didn’t have his free will. I realized later he started to resent me. ... I overlooked my son’s emotional needs.”

Ultimately, with the help of personal development coach Walker Clark, both mother and son overcame their differences and began to accept each other for who they are rather than what they want each other to be, Shen said.

“Our children should not serve as instruments of our achievements and vehicles of our own unrealized dreams (and) goals,” she said. “They need to have their own agency and freedom to choose how they want to live their life. They came from us, but have their own identity apart from us.

“Our purpose is to nurture them and guide them when they are young and learn to let go and set them free when they are ready to leave the nest. Who they are is much more important than what they do (and) accomplish.”

Perry is pursuing a different academic trajectory than his mother envisioned based on his artistic bent. He is majoring in international studies with a minor in Chinese language.

Yet, the journey shared by mother and son in crafting a full-fledged documentary inspired by their late father is far from over.

While the upcoming presentation at the La Jolla library will be a milestone, Shen says completion of “Journey of a Thousand Miles” is probably another year off, depending on funding and other circumstances.

She is compelled to see the project through at least in part because of her belief in the value of stories. That was instilled in her from an early age when her scholarly father read her ancient Chinese poems and folktales.

“Storytelling has such power to connect with fellow human beings from our shared humanity and struggles,” Shen said. “When we make stories of our lost loved ones, they achieve immortality through our stories and the lives they touch beyond their own lifetime.”


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