How One Female Chinese-American Filmmaker Inspired Another, Decades Later
“Finding Kukan” pieces together the story of a lost Oscar-winning film and its mysterious producer, Li Ling-Ai, a Honolulu-born woman who has been all but erased from the film’s history.
Robin Lung received a special jury award for women in film at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival in November.
Photo: Michelle Scott
On Feb. 26, 1942, Rey Scott received a Special Award at the 14th Academy Awards “for his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions.” He was sent to China by Li Ling-Ai, a Honolulu-born woman who wanted to gain sympathy for the Chinese during World War II—by showing everything from how women supported the communities to the bombing of Chongqing.
Seventy-five years later, Kukan no longer exists. There are no known preserved, restored, complete copies of it anywhere. But that’s not all that makes it interesting today—it’s the story of Li, the film’s producer, who has been all but erased from Kukan’s history. Local filmmaker Robin Lung set out to learn more about her in her own film, Finding Kukan.
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? 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 the documentary to life and get her the credit she deserves.
“Li Ling-Ai is someone who came into my life and kept haunting me,” Lung says of why she decided to turn her story into a documentary. With clips from Kukan—which means “heroic courage under bitter suffering”—re-enactments and voiceovers (by Kelly Hu and Daniel Dae Kim, among others), interviews with experts, historians, family and friends, and shots of Lung herself looking for answers, Finding Kukan traces seven years of research. The film explores what it means for Li to have been a strong, bold, nonwhite woman who had to deal with pervasive racism in the 1930s and beyond.
“I was working so hard for so long to bring this story to the public, to let people know how amazing this story was, and now everything that I had been working for is starting to come true. It doesn’t quite feel real,” Lung says. The film has been shown in New York and will continue on the festival circuit, with plans for another local screening before Lung finds a distributor for either a TV broadcast or theatrical release.
Lung is also hoping to get Kukan nominated to the National Film Registry. The more word gets out, the more chances there are of finding somebody who may have a copy of the film somewhere.
For upcoming screenings, visit findingkukan.com.