The Distance Between Us: A Short Film by Jeffrey Wu
Hi Jeff— Thank you so much for sharing this intimate part of your life with us and the greater community. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you first got into filmmaking.
Hello, my name is Jeffrey Wu. I was raised partially in Beijing, but most of my childhood was spent in a small suburb east of Los Angeles. My first foray into filmmaking was really a result of being an only child with unsupervised access to the Internet. My dad would spend most of the year in Beijing doing business while my mom worked late hours in Los Angeles. I would take the bus home from school, load up on Pop-Tarts and Lean Cuisines and surf the internet for an ungodly amount of hours. Somewhere along the way, YouTube came into existence and I became one of the early adopters of the beta version as a 13 year old. My main thing at the time was creating anime music videos or AMVs for short. After sourcing clips of Japanese animated shows and 90s hip-hop music from Limewire, I would mash them together into one cohesive music video on Windows Movie Maker. So if you’ve seen a mashup of Naruto fighting Sasuke set to “Thugz Mansion” - it was probably by me.
I view those pieces as my first films and honestly one of the first times I felt true kinship and community. I made an abundance of internet friends and we would talk for hours on MSN critiquing popular AMVs and sharing new music. We participated in AMV battles, hosted AMV film festivals, and worked on long-form projects that could span up to an hour. They were my first mentors and educators in film teaching me about collaboration, critical analysis, and creative discipline. That foundation and feeling of camaraderie really stuck with me as I began to transition my creations into the real world. Community drove me to participate in my school’s weekly news broadcast. Community drove me to work with The Fung Brothers (Asian-American content creators) and community ultimately drove me to create my current venture called POPeye where we drive community by empowering musicians around the world to share stories about their corner of the world through music.
Your short film, the distance between us, captures your trip back to Beijing to spend time and what was your final moments with your grandmother. What were your feelings like before you landed in Beijing compared to after you got there?
I had heard whispers of Alzheimer’s every now and then over dinners, but maybe it was a lack of Chinese comprehension or youthful ignorance, but I thought the situation was not as dire as it eventually was. I understood it was bad, but the situation I saw in Beijing ended up being much graver than I could have imagined. The thing about Alzheimer’s is that it really does snowball. The first signs are innocent and can be easily chalked about to old age. Forgotten keys, misspoken names that are quickly corrected, or forgetting a long password are all things most of us to do under stress. It only makes sense that these mental gymnastics that we do get harder as we get older. But these small inconveniences can quickly turn into forgetting where you live, what your name is, and eventually how to eat or clean yourself. By the time I arrived in Beijing and started seeing my grandma, she was already that stage.
What is the perception of mental illness in China? Has this experience changed how you think about mental illness at all?
It’s not good, but it’s getting better. The state of memory-care at the time was also reflective of the social attitude towards memory-care. Before my grandma passed, the term 神经病 which roughly means mental disorder is often used interchangeably with crazy within my family. Growing up, I thought it actually meant crazy until I looked it up the actual meaning for myself. Outside of having the right vocabulary to describe and discuss mental illness in China, there’s a huge issue of losing face or 丢脸. That fear of losing face or dignity is the root for a lot of stigma in China. For my family, I heard a lot of ‘grandma is just getting old or it’s natural’ when in fact Alzheimer’s is not the same as natural aging. If anything, the general ignorance the real issue stopped us from getting early intervention which might have increased the quality of life for my grandma in the long term. But I think there is hope to be had. A year ago, I flew to Beijing to visit Le Zhi, an Alzheimer’s advocacy group and healthcare innovator that’s creating memory-care programs and awareness in China. They reached out to me after seeing my film featured in an Alzheimer newsletter and wanted to use it to help create local discussions with caregivers and families of the affected. Hearing that my film was the only Chinese film they could find they spoke candidly about the disease and how it helped people understand the disease was extremely powerful to me.
You also mention that creating the film was a way to reflect on your grandmother’s life. Can you share some memories of your childhood with her?
My grandma loved piano music and loved piano. After she retired, she would take lessons and practice on her upright Steinway in the living room. She would pull back the velvet cover and practice simple her do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do while humming them out loud. When she wasn’t practicing, she was listening. On long summer days, the sounds of Russian ballads and waltz would flow out of her room as she hummed and cleaned. More than anything, she loved it when I would play piano. The only reason I continued to practice piano as a kid was to please my grandma. Even if I was just practicing scales, she would just sit there and listen - sometimes waltzing by herself in the living room to the classical pieces I was learning. After I would finish, she would erupt into applause and cheering as if I was some piano virtuoso. She never ceased to be proud of me and everything I did. No one has ever loved as hard and as unconditionally as my grandma.
Has this process taught you anything about family and relationships at all?
I think the most important thing I’ve received from creating this film was a reminder and renegotiation of the meaning of death. My family is not religious, and I’ve thought very little about the afterlife growing up. Even after my grandma passed, I was extremely confused as to how to react or deal with the emotions. As a consequence. I can’t be sure, but I’d like to believe there’s some solace in the predetermined rituals and process when faced with death. When it came down to facing the truth that my grandma passed away, I really had to search for some meaning on my own. It was really in filmmaking and song writing that I really got to explore those thoughts and ideas in a way that felt natural to me. The songs that I wrote and this the film that I made were originally intended just for me. It was my way of having an internal dialogue that I couldn’t have outside of those worlds. More importantly, it’s made me realize how important it was for me to learn Chinese. Although I was blessed with more opportunities to practice and preserve my Chinese than most of my ABC friends, it still wasn’t enough for me to communicate my exact feelings to my grandma. Now that I’m working full-time and my parents are getting older, it seems like the time I have with my parents is limited too. The clarity of how fragile everything is clearer than ever.
What’s one learning that you’ve encountered through this process that you’d like to share with us?
If there’s one thing I want people to leave the film or this article with, is a desire to call their loved ones and tell them what they mean to you. It might be weird, awkward, or even downright uncomfortable, but there may not be a next time. I still remember the last time I talked to my grandma. It was the night before she passed away. She was having a hard time eating food the third day in a row and generally didn’t have the will to move anymore. They handed her the phone to talk to me one last time. No one had to tell me that she was going to pass because something about the fragility of her voice told me everything. I told her I loved her one last time. I’m not sure if she understood and the next day she passed away due to diabetic complications. Life moves fast, and everyone should make time for their loved ones before it’s too late.
About the contributor
Jeffrey Wu is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles specializing in personal documentary and digital media content creation. He currently splits his time at PHOENIX TELEVISION where he continually engages with his Chinese roots through travel documentaries and POPEYE MEDIA where he expands his curiosity of other cultures through the lens of music.