Robin Lung Restores History in Finding Kukan

Robin Lung.
Robin Lung.
Robin Lung.

By Danny Peary


Finding Kukan fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Robin Lung’s feature debut just played to enthusiastic viewers at DOC NYC. It is always startling in a positive way when forgotten history—in this case both film and socio-political-cultural history—is unearthed, and that’s the case with this movie. Lung, an Hawaiian-born documentarian of Chinese descent, spent years following clues, solving mysteries, and ignoring obstacles to present us with the intriguing double story of Kukan, an important, long-lost Academy Award-winning documentary, and Li Ling-Ai (1908-2003), the force behind it who never got her due—or a much-deserved Oscar. From the film’s press notes: “Filmmaker Robin Lung investigates the case of Li Ling-Ai, the uncredited female producer of Kukan , and landmark color film [that won a special Oscar in 1942, the first year documentaries were honored by the Academy] that revealed the atrocities of World War II China to American Audiences…. Lung discovers a badly damaged film print of [the only Oscar-winning film that the Academy designated as lost] and pieces together the never before told inspirational tale of the two renegades behind the making of it—Li Ling-Ai and cameraman Rey Scott.” Ling-Ai was born in Hawaii but had family in China and sent Scott there to film Japanese aggression so that they could convince America to help her people). Scott received an Oscar, Ling-Ai’s contribution was ignored. From the press notes: “Finding Kukan uses rare and unseen archival footage to create an unforgettable portrait of a female filmmaking pioneer, and sheds light on the long history of racial and gender discrimination behind the camera.”

Lung, who graduated from Stanford and has a 16-year history of bringing untold minority and women’s stories to film and television, says in the press notes: “I started this film project as a way of bringing visibility to an inspirational Asian female, but I grew to realize that the missing faces of Asian women in popular culture only mirror much deeper and disturbing exclusions of their stories from our historical records. Li Ling-Ai’s story not only highlights the systemic racism and sexism that still exists in Hollywood, it provides an inspirational rallying cry to women and people of color to fight to change the system.” I spoke to the director early this week about her unique movie.

Li Ling-Ai.
Li Ling-Ai.

Danny Peary: I don’t think there have been many Chinese American females who have made feature documentaries before you.

Robin Lung: One of my mentors is Frieda Lee Mock, and she was one of the first Asian American directors to win an Academy Award. She directed the [1944] documentary on Maya Lin [Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision]. And there have been a few Chinese Americans who have been nominated. Jessica Yu [who won an Oscar in 1996 for the short Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien] is one of my idols. She makes great films. I’m following in the footsteps of a number of Chinese American women.

DP: Can you be considered a pioneer, too?

RL: I’m not a pioneer, but Li Ling-Ai was. I hope someday I will inspire a young filmmaker, too, as she has me.

DP: In the film, Li Ling-Ai says her mother said, “God gave you a mouth, it’s not just for eating.” Perhaps that was Ling-Ai’s mantra when she spoke about the hardships endured by the Chinese against the Japanese aggressors. Was that also your mantra while making this film about her for so many years?”

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott.
Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott.

RL: It was actually toward the end of my journey that I found Li Ling-Ai’s letters, in which she referred to her mother saying those words. She wrote a memoir called Life Is For a Long Time, which is about her parents’ trials and tribulations as physicians in Hawaii and how her mother always reminded her that life is for a long time. So when it felt my film was never going to be finished—as when a funding group would turn down my application and I realized it would take another six months for me to get more financing—I would say to myself, “Life is for a long time.” Another one of her mantras that was told to me by her good friend was “Head to tail, head to tail, you finish what you started.”

DP: Also: “Perseverance against all odds.” That phrase is mentioned in your movie in relation to her film’s title, and it definitely fits both what Li Ling-Ai went through in her life and what you went through making your film. I’d say it’s a theme of the movie, on and off screen.

RL: “Perseverance against all odds” is the definition of the word Kukan. If you watch my film all the way through you’ll see that my film’s title, Finding Kukan, has a double meaning.

DP: When interviewed in 1993, Li Ling-Ai also talked about reaching people with her message one person at a time. She had learned there was a need for patience, but when she was younger she was desperate to help the people in China who were suffering so much. Do you think it was hard for her to be patient?

RL: I think she said such things to herself because she was someone who wanted things done instantly. From what people tell me about her, she was dynamic and impatient with people who were slow to act or didn’t jump aboard her bandwagon.

DP: When she was a young woman in Hawaii she was writing plays but had trouble getting them produced. Later, when she lived in New York, she herself struggled financially. So struggle seems to have been her entire history.

RL: Yeah, her relatives told me that until her dying day in 2003 that she was trying to get her book about her parents made into a movie. Her book was published in 1972. If you remember, Roots had come out as a miniseries then, and she saw the need for a Chinese Roots. She gave her book to anyone who had any Hollywood connections. It was quite cinematic but of course it had Chinese main characters and would have required a Chinese cast.

DP: Go back to the beginning of your interest in embarking on this film. You had worked on projects for PBS about two strong women of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani and Patsy Mink. Were you looking for another strong woman subject?

RL: I wanted very much to feature a Chinese woman hero from Hawaii. I was very in tune to the whole cultural appropriation of stories by others because the indigenous Hawaiian people have made a big deal about that. If it was our story, we wanted to tell it from our perspective. I thought, “I need to tell a Chinese story.” But there were no larger-than-life Chinese American characters who jumped into my head. I live with my husband in Hawaii, but at one time I lived in New York and was in book publishing at Random House, and my friend there gave me four vintage mystery novels that had been republished. They feature a female Chinese-American detective named Lily Wu, who solves crimes in New York and Hawaii. I totally fell in love with that character. The author of those books, Juanita Sheridan, had told her publisher that she based Lily Wu on some real-life friends of hers. So I did some research on Juanita Sheridan and found out that she lived in Hawaii in the 1930s. So I started searching for flamboyant, college-educated Chinese women of that time. In the Lily Wu novels, it was clear to me that the fictional characters were based on real-life people. For instance, there was a thinly disguised police chief based on the police chief in Hawaii; also and she had a really rich Doris Duke character. One character was a female physician who patches up Lily Wu and her cohort when they are beaten up by villains. She was Chinese and has a practice with her husband near Chinatown. I thought that was bizarre for there to be a Chinese female physician in that time period. So I searched to see if there really was anyone like that. That’s when I came across Li Ling-Ai’s mother who was a doctor who worked with her husband in Hawaii. I found that there was a memoir written about them by their daughter, Li Ling-Ai. I read the book and discovered that the daughter was a really colorful character who had made a movie, a documentary called Kukan. I thought, “Maybe she’s who Lily Wu was based on.” I needed to learn everything I could about Li Ling-Ai after that.

DP: At what point did you decide to not make your film about the parents but about her?

RL: I was totally in love with Li Ling-Ai, but I couldn’t find out very much about her and when I contacted the Academy of Arts and Sciences, I discovered that it was the only Oscar winning film that was missing. One of my mentors, Marlene Booth [an award-winning filmmaker and film instructor at the University of Hawaii], met with me and said, “You should keep the story of Li Ling-Ai on the back burner—don’t give up on your search for her–but now you have this wonderful source in this memoir. It’s so cinematic that you can make a documentary about this female physician and her husband. So I took her advice and started doing research for a documentary on Li Ling-Ai’s parents. Part of that was tracking down relatives to interview. They would tell me wonderful stories about Li Ling-A’s parents, but I always found myself saying, “I’m really interested in Li Ling-Ai. Can you tell me something about her?” More evidence came out and I was directed to her friend on the mainland who knew about the film. Eventually that led to my finding a copy of Kukan at the National Archives in Washington. As soon as I found that there was 30 minutes of the film there, I realized I could make a documentary about her and her movie, which was much more of a compelling story to me.

DP: You have talked about eureka “chicken skin moments” during your research, when you learned something that propelled the film forward.

RL: There were hundreds of those moments. Every time I found a picture, or a piece of evidence, or somebody still alive who actually knew Li Ling-Ai or Rey Scott, I would get so excited and jump and up and down in my living room. And if my husband wasn’t home, I’d have to tell my cat.

DP: You have said there wouldn’t have been a film if it weren’t for Mike Dover, who photographs gravestones.

RL: Mike Dover takes photographs of gravestones and he took the photograph of Rey Scott’s gravestone that led me to his family. I discovered where he was buried and found his obituary because of that. And I tracked down the relatives mentioned in his obituary. And that led to my finding the full copy of Kukan on VHS. The family also had a scrapbook that Rey Scott had assembled during the making and distribution of Kukan. All the articles in it were key sources of information; I couldn’t have found them anywhere else. That was a huge boon.

DP: Was there anything else you found that was indispensable?

RL: I found interview tapes that Li Ling-Ai did in 1993 for a Turner Broadcasting special about Robert Ripley, with whom she worked for nine years. When the DVDs arrived I started shaking. No one was in the house with me, so I watched them over and over again.

DP: How did you know that interview with Turner existed?

RL: Several of her great nieces shared their correspondence with Li Ling-Ai. She was a great letter writer and she mentioned in her writing that the Turner people were coming to interview her for a documentary on Robert Ripley. Fortunately, that Ripley documentary was out there, and I purchased a VHS of it on either on Amazon or eBay. In the documentary, I got to see Li Ling-Ai. It was for only about thirty seconds but it was a great little moment when she talks about Ripley and her experiences with him. I assumed there was more footage of that interview that wasn’t used. It took a long time but I tracked down the postproduction manager of that show. He graciously helped me find the raw footage in a salt mine in Kansas, where they have an archive because the natural air conditioning. Lucky for me because that interview was key to my research. .

DP: When you saw her at the age of 85, was she what you expected?

RL: That and more. In some ways it was hard to watch because the interviewer was trying to get information from her about Robert Ripley but she kept going off on long tangents, including talking about a film they knew nothing about.   She also talked about going to the White House and screening the film. She spoke about meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. They’d let her talk and then try to get her back on topic. She’d be asked, “What did Ripley like to eat?” I’d yell, “No, ask her about Eleanor Roosevelt!” It was frustrating because she’d mention something very tantalizing but they wouldn’t let her tell the whole story.

DP: In addition to that interview, you also include her being the cohost of a live, nationwide Ripley’s Believe It or Not! TV show in 1949 [the year he died from a heart attack, resulting in and others taking over the hosting of the show]. That’s amazing.

RL: That was amazing. That was the early days of live national broadcast television. She was the first Asian American to host a national show. She loved the camera. I was fortunate enough to meet with the archivist at Ripley Entertainment in Orlando. They opened their archive to me so that’s how I found the tapes of the NBC show. The archivist, Edward Meyer, told me he was in the room when the Turner broadcasting people interviewed Li Ling-Ai in 1993. As an aside, he said, “We all thought she was nuts when she was talking about going to the White House and meeting Eleanor Roosevelt.” Yet what she said was true.

DP: When, in the film, you first called Mark Scott, the son of Rey Scott, he sounded suspicious of you. Did you sense that?

RL: Yes. I found the sons through Facebook. I plugged in all the names in the obituary, and three of the four sons came up. I contacted Mark Scott first, through Facebook.   He knew what I was calling about but he didn’t really know who I was and was a little suspicious. Later on he told me that his father had been married a least a couple of times before he met their mother, and they didn’t know who the previous wives were. When Rey died, his sons found the scrapbook containing pictures of this young Chinese woman. So he thought I might be a long-lost half-sister. He was suspicious on a couple of levels. I assured him that I wasn’t related to Li Ling-Ai. Over time they all warmed to me. My movie couldn’t have been made without the cooperation of the Scott family. One great thing was that before I met her, Michelle Scott, Rey’s granddaughter who is an artist living in Atlanta, found photographs that he took and she was working on a multimedia art series based on his China photographs. She was desperate to know more about her grandfather and I was desperate to know more about Li Ling-Ai, so we sort of pooled forces and she went around collecting photographs to show me and I’d share what I found with her. Some of her art works incorporate photographs that I found in Li Ling-Ai’s family collection.

DP: Did the Scott family know who she was other than she was listed as Technical Adviser in the film’s credits?

RL: Not really. They had read a little about her in the scrapbooks but didn’t know her background.

DP: So there was no suspicion that Rey and Li Ling-Ai had secretly married or had a romantic relationship?

RL: The oldest brother said he remembers some gossip from his mother’s family that his father had been involved with a Chinese woman who lived in New York. That’s about it.

DP: During your exhaustive research over the years, you hoped to learn more and more about her, so was it frustrating that she didn’t write enough about herself in her book about her parents?

RL: It was. I became interested in her at the very beginning of the book when I read that she had worked on a film. So I kept reading hoping to find more information about her but it doesn’t include much about her as an adult. You get an idea of what it was like her to grow up in Hawaii with physicians as parents, but there is only one paragraph in the book that describes her experiences as an adult. In that paragraph I learned that she sent Rey Scott to China to film and record the story called Kukan.

DP: Have you decided whether she went to China herself with him?

RL: I can’t say definitively. It is a little bit of a spoiler because my search for whether she went is part of the movie’s mystery.

DP: It’s still a mystery whatever you say because…

RL: …I didn’t find any evidence that she accompanied him—but that’s not saying she didn’t go.

DP: Do you think of Kukan as a propaganda film? There is the striking footage of Chongqing during bombings, but some bits looks a bit staged, like the soldiers marching. I’m not saying propaganda is bad. All the war documentaries the U.S. made were propaganda.

RL: The scene with Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife was probably set up. Rey might have said, “Can you sit there? Can you do something natural?” But mostly Rey shot verité footage. It is arguable but I believe every documentary has a slant. They are all being made by human filmmakers so I don’t think any documentary is truly objective. In the editing room, filmmakers decide what they want to include and leave out. So I’ll say Kukan might be propaganda in the “China-is-great” sense. It definitely had a slant. Li Ling-Ai had a mission to show Americans the true China and show the people in a positive light, saying that they weren’t lying down in defeat to the Japanese and could stand on their own and become a democratic nation if they got help from another country. So it was very much on the Nationalist side led by Chiang Kai-Shek, rather than the communist side—although the Chinese army the narrator praises for doing great things was communist led.

DP: According to your movie, Li Ling-Ai worked for and was the poster child for United China Relief.   My guess is that you admire her as much for being a political activist as a pioneer filmmaker.

RL: You can see her as a flamboyant woman who loved the spotlight. That was true. But she always used that attention to benefit her cause. She was always about promoting China and Chinese Americans. She went on to teach Chinese cooking. She drove her own car across the country to give lectures about China. She had a mission. Having been raised in Hawaii, I think I would be classified as a pacifist, politically apathetic type. But she has inspired me to be more of an activist, especially in supporting women in film. I think her film and meeting survivors of the war in China has taught me to be more of a peace activist and get the message across about the dangers of going to war and how citizens are the ones who suffer when governments go to war.

DP: It was striking in your film when Li Ling-Ai’s nephew Andrew, who now lives in China, remembers the Japanese bombing Chinese cities and how “flesh was hanging on telephone poles and wires” and there was the “smell of blood.”

RL: Andrew is the son of Li Ling-Ai’s sister Betty Li, and interviewing him was difficult. His daughters told me that he never talked about the war to them. I had already spoken a lot to him on Skype, but there was a lot of joking then and on camera was the first time he opened up to me about experiences he had during the war. So it kind of shocked me to know that this jolly, positive-thinking man had witnessed all of that as a young boy.

DP: In the film, we see you present Kukan in China and they are so grateful to have for the first time a vision of the bombing of Chongqing that’s not from the perspective of Japanese pilots. So has the full movie been restored?

RL: We have the full film on VHS. But the only good quality footage in 16mm is the 30 minutes at the National Archives.

DP: What is the importance of people seeing Finding Kukan? Is it to present a woman who was lost in history?

RL: I think so, but I think my film and its importance have many layers. We had to focus this film on one person, Li Ling-Ai. The story of Kukan and Rey Scott would live because the Academy Award was attached to it, but I really felt that if I didn’t make this film, her story was going to be lost. That’s the number one thing in my film that I want audiences to know about–but there are much larger themes.