By Robin Lung
Can the discovery of a long lost 1941 Oscar-winning film bring redemption to the unheralded Chinese American woman behind the making of the movie?
The courage of the past is the inspiration for the future. But what happens when that past is forgotten or obliterated? Hawaii Chinese filmmaker Robin Lung grew up longing to be blonde and blue-eyed and doesn’t remember any Chinese American heroines in the popular culture of her youth. So when she discovers that a Chinese woman from Hawaii named Li Ling-Ai co-produced a 1941 Oscar-winning film called KUKAN, her amazement quickly turns to an obsession to learn all she can about Li Ling-Ai and the film. The trouble is KUKAN, an epic color film of China and its people amid war with Japan, has been lost for over half a century. No known copy exists. What’s more, the Academy Award and most of the attention for KUKAN went to cameraman Rey Scott. Li Ling-Ai is only credited as a Technical Advisor and has been completely ignored by film historians over the years. Lung’s sense of injustice spurs her on to locate a badly damaged full copy of KUKAN along with a string of related documents scattered across the country. Together they tell an inspirational story of two novice filmmakers who brave war, prejudice and poverty to bring China’s wartime plight to the rest of the world. KUKAN ends up screening for President Roosevelt at the White House and helps to change the course of the war. But as the years pass and China falls out of political favor, KUKAN and cameraman Rey Scott drop out of sight. Li Ling-Ai’s stories about KUKAN seem more and more unreal. She has little to show to prove her part in the making of the film, and many pass her stories off as exaggerations or lies. Lung’s effort to restore KUKAN and retell Li’s story become essential to reclaiming a piece of history for this pioneering Chinese American media maker.
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Producer/Director Robin Lung made her directorial debut with Washington Place: Hawaii’s First Home, a 30-minute documentary for PBS Hawaii about Hawaii’s historic governor’s mansion and home of Queen Liliuokalani. She was the associate producer for the national PBS documentary Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, and producer/director of numerous short documentaries for the Historic Hawaii Foundation.