Local Documentary Reveals Story of Lost Oscar-Winning Film in “Finding Kukan”
The film premieres this Saturday at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival.
Photos: Courtesy of Nested Egg Productions
The film Kukan is a 1941 documentary showing life in China during World War II—everything from how women supported the communities to the bombing of Chongqing. American photographer Rey Scott received an honorary Academy Award for the film in 1942 and took it on a screening tour across the country, which included a showing for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of or seen the film, it’s because it disappeared—there are no complete, preserved, restored copies of it on film anywhere. But that’s not all that makes it interesting today—it’s the story of the film’s producer, Li Ling-Ai, a Honolulu-born woman who has been all but erased from Kukan’s history. Local filmmaker Robin Lung set out to learn more about her in her new film, Finding Kukan, premiering this Saturday at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival.
Finding Kukan could be called Finding Li Ling-Ai, because that’s the real journey on which Lung takes audiences. Who was this woman, who wanted to show America what China was really like during the war? How did she produce Kukan, and why is she only listed as a technical adviser in the credits? What was her relationship with Scott, who wrote her letters from overseas? As a fellow Chinese-American filmmaker from Hawai‘i, Lung was drawn to Li’s story and set out to not only find a copy of the film, but determine Li’s true role in bringing this Oscar-winning documentary to life and get her the credit she deserves.
With clips from Kukan—which means “heroic courage under bitter suffering”—reenactments and voiceovers, interviews with experts, historians, family and friends, and shots of Lung herself looking for answers, Finding Kukan traces seven years of research, from frustrating dead-ends to enlightening interviews with Li Ling-Ai herself before her passing. The film explores what it means for Li to have been a strong, bold woman—a nonwhite one, who had to deal with pervasive racism—in the 1930s and beyond.
Finding Kukan will be screened at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival on Saturday, Nov. 5, 5:45 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 11, 3:45 p.m., at Dole Cannery. Each screening will be followed by a Q&A with Lung. Tickets can be purchased online or at the HIFF Box Office.