Chinese resistance film rediscovered
Filmmaker Robin Lung with portraits of Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott. [Photo by Michelle Scott]
A film that tracks a long-lost, awarding-winning documentary about Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion during World War II is expected to educate the public about the history and draw lessons from the past.
Finding Kukan, a documentary by filmmaker Robin Lung, depicts the journey to rediscover Kukan, a previously lost color documentary produced by Chinese American playwright Li Ling-Ai from 1937 to 1940.
Kukan is the Chinese pronunciation for "hard working", a quality that the film’s producer believed helped Chinese people win the war.
"It means bitter struggle, or perseverance against all odds," said Lung. "The same model can be used for us in our everyday life — going ahead in the world which is very complicated and difficult. And we all have to go forward in a positive way and try to live our lives as best as we can."
In 1937, Li decided to make a movie to record war-torn China with her own money. She hired Rey Scott, a photojournalist from the US Midwest and a foreign correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph, to shoot the documentary in China.
The film offered American audiences a rare glimpse of the people of China, finishing off with footage of the devastating August 1940 bombardment of Chongqing. The color documentary won an Honorary Academy Award in 1941.
But the film faded from view after the war was over. Kukan was officially categorized as a "lost" film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until 2009, when Lung discovered a copy of it.
"As I was discovering the story, I was so enchanted that I kept on discovering more and more information," said Lung. It took her seven years to finally complete the film in 2015, which marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Chinese people’s war against Japanese aggression.
Finding Kukan also explores questions of racial and gender prejudice in a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was in full effect — such as how a Chinese American woman helped produce a documentary to an Honorary Academy Award when open racism toward Asian Americans was the norm.
"The journey of Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott was very inspirational," said Lung. "When I was discovering the part of history I didn’t know about, I was also discovering the connection to my Chinese heritage."
"Many people identify with my journey and are inspired by my journey as well as the journey of Rey Scott and Li Ling-Ai 75 years ago," she said.
Finding Kukan adapts the form of traditional Chinese shadow puppetry to tell the historical story of Li and Scott, said Lung. The team collaborated with a shadow theater director in San Francisco and used actors to cast shadows for the scenes.
Aside from the shadows, the team also created a dramatic monologue based on the actual written words of Li and Scott and their interviews.
To bring the monologue to life, actress Kelly Hu voices the character of Li as a young woman, and Daniel Dae Kim voices Scott, according to Lung.
The documentary was screened on March 11 in San Francisco and nominated for the best documentary at CAAMFest, an Asian American film festival in San Francisco. The film had been screened in Honolulu and New York and received a special jury award for documentary at the Hawaii International Film Festival.
"The feedback from the audience has been wonderful. Across the board, we have men and women, and people of all ethnicities falling in love with Li Ling-Ai and her character," said Lung.
"We are looking for broadcast distribution and educational distribution in the universities in the US," she said. "We also hope to get it at video streaming websites in China."