Writer/director Oates Yinchao Wu has found that making films is as much about discovering himself as it is displaying stories for others. He readily admits that filmmaking is therapy for him. As an artist originally from China who has found himself creating films in other parts of the world (including Hollywood) the story of Wu and his family resonates with many around the world. Being a visitor in a foreign land focused on making a life for yourself is something that a sizable percentage of the world identifies with. The knowledge and experiences of this filmmaker have led him to create productions which communicate these occurrences in a very real and personal way. Rather than being told on a grand scale, these films function on a very intimate and personal level, communicating the often dire situations of the characters of Wu’s films. Oates was awarded the Panavision New Filmmaker grant for his film “Behind the Bear’s Eyes.” The immense praise and attention received by the film inspired Wu too dig into his own family’s past to create the upcoming film “Moth Remembers Her First Life.” Both films emotionally exhibit the experience of Chinese women in the US but even more appropriately give insight into the fear of anyone with an uncertain future which appears dire.
“Behind the Bear’s Eyes” tells the story of Lu, a young Chinese woman who has been living in California for eight years and loses her Visa status and is forced to leave the place she calls home. The film portrays Lu's last two days in America and her fight against the fear of losing her own identity. The uneasy feeling begins with the first scene which shows Lu’s apartment with all of her belongings already boxed up. Lu’s ex-boyfriend communicates his willingness to marry her, giving her the ability to stay in the US but she declines the offer in hopes of finding true love. Later, during a hike in the forest, the surroundings become a metaphor for the risk and danger that begin to overwhelm Lu’s state of mind. The dark and dense branches, insects, mud, and decay bring a darker tone to the film.
As both writer and director of this film, Oates had keen insight to what he wanted. One of the most challenging parts of the film was an aspect he hadn’t fully considered until the production began, sound design. While Wu had an idea of what would work, he wanted to press himself and his crew to accurately communicate Lu’s fear in the film. The desire was to create a fear that was both abstract and personal. Oates explains, “The sound design was a very difficult part. I usually have a very clear vision about what I’m looking for in a film sound-wise but I had abstract ideas of the tone and feelings in this one. I worked extensively with my sound designer Sara Suarez. Sometimes it was too abstract, sometimes it was too literal, and sometimes I just didn’t feel it. We went back and forth numerous times to find the perfect balance. It was difficult because it was not a very clear goal. it’s something we discovered along the way. In the end, I was extremely happy with the outcome. We have so many layers of sound to support the world and the shift from reality to spirituality in the film.”
While “Behind the Bear’s Eyes” inspired and moved many audience members, it also prompted its creator to pursue a more personal inspection of this experience. The upcoming film “Moth Remembers Her First Life” is based on Wu’s own mother. When he began interviewing his mother about her experiences living in the US in the 90’s and her return to live in China, it became very apparent to him that there is not one immigrant experience but rather a myriad. Although he interviewed both of his parents, it was his mother’s story in particular which inspired him. As a Chinese woman struggling in the ‘90s, she represents the endless women who live under a patriarchal society; those who only exist as the supportive characters for their men’s dreams’ and future. She was a woman who had to sacrifice her own identity in order to become a wife and a mother. She is a woman who, like many other women around the world, was “allowed” to have a limited dream, but nothing more. “Moth Remembers Her First Life” is a story of the hidden figures of society who sacrifice their own dreams to be a piece of someone else’s. At its core the film is about someone who fights to survive and for the survival of others; a person who happens to be an immigrant, a woman, a wife, and a mother. The film is a message to dreamers who find themselves up against seemingly insurmountable odds.
While Oates has always wanted to be a storyteller, films such as “Behind the Bear’s Eyes” and “Moth Remembers Her First Life” are his passion not only because he needs to tell stories but rather he is a filmmaker because these stories need to be told. Wu feels fortunate to have the opportunity to communicate the experiences of his family and the like in this world. Challenges and difficulties create strong, smart, and caring people. The writer in Oates recognizes that a life which is truly being lived experiences not only good fortune. The director in him wants to let others share in this experience as well as the sense of community that it may contain for some. He reveals, “Through the years I’ve learned that film for me is not only a way to express myself and communicate with my audience but it’s also a way for me to look into my own life; to learn and grow. I feel my films represent me in the different periods of my life. My films are my therapy. It’s my way to find my voice in this world. As naïve as it might sound, I believe that we all have the power to change the world. My power is in my art. My films help me to understand myself, my fear, and concerns. I hope through that process my audience might feel that they are not alone. We are all looking for some sense of purpose and belonging, I have no doubt that making films is the reason I exist.”