It’s hard to believe that a film that was given an Honorary Academy Award in 1941, the first instance of an Oscar being bestowed to a documentary before having a category the next year, would ever just disappear. That something so culturally significant that not only introduced American audiences to the ethnicities within China, but gave the world the only ground-level footage of the bombing of Chongqing by the Japanese Air Force in World War II, would somehow get misplaced and be forgotten. But that’s what happened to Kukan, a film shot, written, and directed by a white man, but the brainchild of a fiercely badass Chinese American woman, Li Ling-Ai.
Luckily, filmmaker Robin Lung took it upon herself to piece together this film (there’s still no complete version of it today), and rediscover the clever, trailblazing, and fascinating woman who made it all happen, but whose role was relegated to “Technical Advisor” when distributor Adventure Films took the producer credit. Lung’s film Finding Kukan is an adventure, the journey of a woman attempting to track down a lost film, an artifact of Chinese-American heritage, all while honoring a bold Asian American woman who fought to battle American misconceptions of the Chinese. The film is screening Tuesday and Wednesday night in New York City as part of DOCNYC, a documentary film festival.
“It’s funny because Li Ling-Ai was trying to bring the real story of China to the American people back in 1941, but she ends up teaching me in 2008 about Chinese history and culture,” writer and director Robin Lung told me. “So her work lives on to teach Americans who are of Chinese descent about their own history.”
Finding Kukan is a mystery film, attempting to figure out who Li Ling-Ai is and what exactly her relationship with the Rey Scott—the man who shot, wrote, and directed the film, and who received the Oscar—actually was through a series of letters, depicted by gorgeous shadow art and featuring voiceovers from Kelly Hu and Daniel Dae Kim. It’s an underdog film about an Asian American woman overcoming incredible odds to fight for accurate representation of her people. It’s a tragedy about how Li was denied the credit that was rightfully hers, the credit she had earned because of some of the same prejudices that face women filmmakers of color today. And it's an homage to documentary filmmaking.
I sat down with Robin Lung to discuss Finding Kukan, being a Chinese American filmmaker in 2016, and what it was like helping both Chinese people and Chinese Americans reconnect with an important part of cultural history.
Throughout the film, you have these really beautiful reenactments done through shadow and voiceover. How did you decide that was going to be the medium to convey all these letters and documents?
We had so much great story that was on paper. As I found more and more clues, the story just got bigger and bigger and bigger and more and more epic, but the problem was we didn’t have a lot of archival footage. We knew we had to visualize it somehow and animation didn’t seem right, it was too modern for this 1930s-40s story.
I saw this film by Zhang Yimou called To Live and that features a main character who is a Chinese shadow master. I had never known that shadow puppetry was a Chinese art form, so I thought maybe we could do something with that. And we came across this Shadow Master in San Francisco named Larry Reed who does cinematic versions of traditional shadow theater, and I contacted him. He said he loved my story and so he would be happy to work with me.
Every layer of this film has a meaning.
One of the things Larry taught me was that in traditional Indonesian shadow theater, it’s a spiritual storytelling. It’s bringing the past into the present, is what the shadow master is doing. And that for me was what we were trying to do.
How does it make you feel to know that women in the film industry today face some of the same barriers that Li Ling-Ai faced in the 1940s?
Well, I do think we have progressed, but I know that across that board, not just in moviemaking, women are overshadowed by men when it comes to getting the money and getting the credit for the work that they do and you know, it pisses me off all the time. I think that we’re getting more sensitive about it and that women are starting to wake up and demand credit when it’s stolen from them or not given to them but there are certain areas of industries where males control things, and it’s really tough to get traction in that, and unfortunately Hollywood is one of those industries.
What do you make of the lack of representation and the whitewashing of Asian characters in mainstream media today?
I get this sinking feeling in my stomach when that happens. Asians are the majority in Hawaii. There are so many kickass Asian men and women whose stories could fill many many books and many many movies and to think that you couldn’t have a hero who is Asian doesn’t make sense, first of all. Second, as we have more and more audiences who are Asian, they’re not going to go for that. They’re just not going to go for those movies. It’s a stupid economic decision.
Have you ever faced discrimination as a Asian woman filmmaker?
In the movie making industry as I go to try to get funding, for this film for instance, as soon as they see a Chinese woman behind the camera and a Chinese woman in front of the camera, my film gets put into a niche little pigeonhole, and that makes me upset because this is a totally universal story that everyone across the board, male, female, white, Asian, Latino, black, have all responded to. It’s much bigger than the niche people want to put it in.
In the film, you actually traveled to China to present recovered footage from Kukan of this historic bombing to Chinese people whose family have actually been affected by World War II. What was that like, really threading the American Chinese experience and the Chinese experience together?
For me it was very personal. I didn’t grow up knowing about Chinese history and the history of Asia in World War II. I grew up in a very much American school system. We learned about the Holocaust, we learned about the Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima, but we didn’t learn anything bout the Rape of Nanking or the fact that China was our ally in World War II. All I knew about China was, ‘Communist: enemy, Mao: bad.’ So this was a really eyeopening experience to learn about China in the '40s.
That's such a huge gap in American education.
And then when I went to China for the first time and was able to connect with historians and bring Kukan back to China, it was really a profound experience. I realized because of the communist takeover, their history before communism was also something that was lost and wasn’t being taught in school and had just started to be discovered. And for people whose ancestors had fought in World War II, and were citizens in the towns Kukan depicts, it was like bringing back their own personal history to them, history that hadn’t been seen on film and that was really powerful.
Over the course of the eight years you spent working on this film, what was the most frustrating part?
For me, the biggest thing was that Li Ling-Ai’s story wasn’t documented before, and a lot of Rey Scott’s story was documented. There there were articles on Rey Scott. When they wrote about Li Ling-Ai, it was in the women’s section of the paper. And so they would write about the dress she wore, the color of the fingernail polish she had on, but they didn’t report on her behind-the-scenes work, the part that I really want to know about. She herself promoted herself in the way that the media wanted her to talk about herself. She knew how to get publicity. She was beautiful, so she posed for pictures and she did what she could, but there was this whole other story behind the scenes, and I wasn’t able to find any of it, and that was the most difficult thing.
Yeah, Scott's children had albums with all these articles on him, but there were only a few cut-outs on Li. What about anecdotal information?
As I was doing research, I encountered resistance by older people. Not just her relatives, but older people who had experienced the war or experienced the time period. I’m not sure where that comes from but there’s that protectiveness about not wanting to air dirty laundry or not say anything bad about anyone, so a lot of the older people really didn’t want to go on record about this story.
I noticed in the film at least two of the older folks you interviewed were skeptical and asked why you were so interested in Li Ling-Ai? Do you think it’s just a generational thing?
It wasn’t an uncommon reaction. I think it’s kind of like brainwashing almost. The history that is touted and celebrated is the white male history and so if you’re going around asking people questions about a Chinese American woman who is forgotten, people are like, ‘Why are you concerned about her? Ask me about Eleanor Roosevelt! Why do you want to know about this unknown woman or make a movie about this unknown woman?You're crazy!’
What was one of the most rewarding parts of making the film?
Going to China and seeing the people’s reaction to seeing Kukan and Li Ling-Ai. They fell in love with Li Ling-Ai, they see her as a hero, and that was a big validation for me. After so many years of resistance, and [people saying] this is not an important story, to really have a whole country embrace this story and say, yes she is a hero, and to thank me for bringing the story there? That was really heartening and encouraging. This has been worth something.
You mention finding a letter Ling-Ai wrote when she was feeling discouraged, something about how if even one person feels inspired by the work she’s done, she’ll feel like her work was worth it. Who do you want to inspire with this film?
I totally want to target young women filmmakers. They have so many hurdles in front of them and so few role models. Storytelling through film, I experienced how lasting that is and how important that is. I’ve told a couple young women filmmakers who are starting off, the world doesn’t need another great administrator, the world needs another great woman filmmaker. You have to persevere. You have to stick with it.
Filmmakers are amazing. I hope to inspire some young filmmaker who is lured into the industry, who could become a banker or a CEO and make a lot of money doing so, but they have a passion for filmmaking. I want that woman to stick with it and be a poor filmmaker. [laughs]