Interview: Director Robin Lung on Sharing the Forgotten Story of Li Ling-Ai in Finding Kukan
There were a lot of amazing films at DOC NYC this year, but Robin Lung’s Finding Kukan hit especially close to home for me as an Asian-American. Lung’s documentary is all about her quest to learn more about Li Ling-Ai, a Chinese-American woman from Hawai’i who had a crucial role in the making of Kukan, a lost documentary about the dire straits of 1930s China. She worked with photojournalist Ray Scott, who captured images of China no one else was taking—eventually leading to an Academy Award in 1942 and a White House visit.
She was also a number of other things—a playwright, an activist, and the first Asian woman to co-host an American show. So why isn’t Li Ling-Ai a household name? How were her accomplishments erased and forgotten when so many Asian-Americans, like me, feel starved for representation? Lung’s film dives into letters, interviews, and more to tell the story of this remarkable woman, and to show how important preservation is in our history. I had the opportunity to sit down with Lung to talk about Kukan and why Hollywood should make a Li Ling-Ai movie now.
TMS (Charline): I fell in love with Li Ling-Ai so much over the course of this movie. How do you see your relationship with her after talking to people and researching her for seven years?
Robin Lung: Yeah, she’s really my mentor now. She’s my mentor from Heaven, so to speak, because she, as a filmmaker herself and as a woman of color, she’s inspired me so much because she had to battle so many more large forces than I have. Some of those hurdles and obstacles still exist for a female filmmaker of color today, so she’s really my inspiration.
TMS: I think the title Finding Kukan is so clever because on one hand it’s literally about finding this movie and restoring it the best you can, but it’s also about finding that strength and perseverance in her story, which I really loved.
Lung: Kukan is really a Chinese word that’s almost untranslatable in English, but it really does mean perseverance or persevering against all odds. Bitter struggle even if things are really bad, you keep going on and that was true for her. I mean, in wartime they had to really face terrible life and death situations and yet they kept on. And for me, when I look at what they did, what I have to go through to make a film today–it’s like nothing compared to that. But yet, it is a struggle and it was a long road for me. And so, finding that strength to go on even though you don’t get that grant or the characters don’t cooperate, or the story is hard to find, that is the “Kukan” that I end up finding in my own life.
TMS: Something that really struck me in your narration was the language of responsibility to see it through, to make sure her story was told for people who don’t know about her. Did you feel a lot of pressure making this, to portray her in a way that was true?
Lung: I really felt like every person I met along the journey who knew her or who could tell me about that time period is like, a little pearl on a string and I kept amassing these pearls until I could make a full necklace. But it wasn’t like the whole necklace was one—they all had different facets of it, everyone had a different opinion of her. And I wanted to try and include all those different facets because she was really a complicated person. And I think that’s what’s so fascinating about her, that she just wasn’t one thing or one person to the world. She really created different personalities depending on who she was talking to or performing for. She really was like a performance artist, which is another fascinating thing about her.
TMS: I think I was also on the same page as you were at one point in the film. I wanted her to be this super-heroic person who was perfect, this super-mythologized person, but she also wasn’t perfect at points. That almost made her a more compelling character for me.
Lung: Yeah, it’s funny because I would get upset at her. I mean, I never met her—she had passed away before I even started this project, but she would be writing letters that I would be reading or talking in an interview, and then she would say something that I thought was out of character. Like, “You’re not supposed to say that! You’re not supposed to write that in a letter or you’re not supposed to complain about that,” and so I would get sort of frustrated at her like “You’re not behaving properly in my mind! [Laughs] But then I began to take it as a whole picture and some of the complaints and reactions she had, I realized, were coming from a different place than I was. She really had to face much more discrimination than I ever had to and she also had to live life as a single woman because she chose a career over marriage and family. In those days she felt that was the only choice she had—to pursue a career meant you could not be married and you could not have children.
TMS: When she said she wasn’t going to be subservient, I was instinctively kind of like, “Well, of course,” but I realized that was a really radical thing to say at the time. As a someone who makes documentaries herself, was it different to look specifically at this woman who also worked in photojournalism? Did you see yourself reflected in her?
Lung: Initially I thought we didn’t have that much in common except for the fact that we’re both from Hawai’i and we’re both Chinese-American because she was a diva. She presented herself as this really glamorous person and I’m really much more of a behind-the-scenes woman. I don’t seek the spotlight at all, but in the making of this film I needed to present myself more. I needed to speak out in public more and I needed to sell this film. So I started seeing myself become more like her, or looking to her for inspiration. Like, “Oh, you better put on a better jacket” [Laughs] She really knew how to put it out there and so I like taking lessons from her even though she was dead.
TMS: Do you think you ascribe a lot to what she said about legacy and inspiring future artists?
Lung: I always have felt that telling our history, telling personal stories is important and I think it comes from the fact that growing up I didn’t have a lot of Chinese-American stories and I loved reading. I loved movies. And so, I didn’t really have a lot of characters in fiction or in movies to follow so I started collecting these stories on my bookshelf. Then, as I grew up and became a storyteller myself, I realized how rich and historic our Asian-American stories are and how many of them are being lost. So that’s what I hope audiences take from this film, is that there are really important stories being forgotten or lost and they need to be documented.
TMS: That was a really powerful message for me. The fact that Kukan wasn’t lost because of suppression or anything—but just because people didn’t see that history as necessarily important or relevant anymore. Could you talk a bit more about why it’s so important that we still look at Kukan now?
Lung: I think there are a number of global reasons. In America, I believe theres’ a lot of negative slant in the media when we talk about China and I think it’s important to know that back in WWII we were allies. We fought on the same side and then Kukan itself is a film that records this history in China—records the horrors of war, really. And as we move into a world that’s more and more violent and more contentious we need to remember what the horrors of war are and that citizens everyday are the ones that are so negatively affected when governments choose to go to war.
TMS: There’s a very interesting relationship, I think, between Asian-Americans and the history in China. As a fourth-generation Asian-American, do you think your relationship to China changed making this film and bringing it there as well?
Lung: I didn’t grow up knowing anything about China in WWII and when I learned about what was happening there and all the horrors, and really how heroic the Chinese people were, I really did feel much closer affinity for China. I actually got to go to China for the very first time because of this film and I gained a greater appreciation for people like Ray Scott who were Americans and Caucasians who really fought for China and really took on that as their mission to save these Chinese people. There were many people like Ray Scott who came from America to help China.
TMS: For a quick pause, I just want to say I’m really happy this film was made. When I found out about Li Ling-Ai I almost felt a little bit cheated because I write so much about Asian representation and I didn’t know that this magnificent woman was such a crucial part of this history. The first thing I did was email my old Asian-American lit professor and say, like, “Hey! You should definitely watch this and tell your students to watch this. It resonates with so many of the themes we talk about.” What has the reception been like? How do you see it changing things or adding to this larger dialogue?
Lung: I think, well first of all, Li Ling-Ai is this amazing unforgettable character and this one guy who watched my film in Hawai’i said, “This is the first time I fell in love with a dead woman.” [Laughs] In the academic sphere, I think she is a missing character in the whole women’s studies movement, the ethnic studies movement, she really was forgotten and she did amazing things. Not just Kukan—she wrote a memoir about Chinese-Americans in Hawai’i at a time very few were doing so. She was a playwright, she went on national television on Ripley’s Believe It or Not. She was putting an Asian-American face to the world, to the nation at a time when people thought they only worked in laundries. So she really raised the profile of Asian-Americans in her time period. I’m hoping that she will start being included in textbooks about Asian women and media makers.
TMS: Was there anything you found in her books or letters or anything that didn’t make the movie that was really notable or even just fun for you?
Lung: Yeah, there were a lot of things. But what I want to go back to saying is that in my research of the 30s and 40s I also discovered many other women who’ve been forgotten, so Li Ling-Ai is sort of emblematic of many women and people of color who did incredible things but have been forgotten by history. Her story is one of many.
TMS: Do you think you’ll look at any of them for future projects?
Lung: Future projects are this big cloud above my head. I dream about them, but making them a reality is another thing. You talked about whether there was anything we left out of the story, and she had such a colorful past that we had to leave out a lot of it because we had to focus the film on a certain aspect of her life. She was, for instance, working with this very famous musician who had three Broadway hits and three Hollywood musical hits at the same time. And now he’s forgotten too, his name is Rudolph Friml. But she wanted to create an all-Chinese musical with him featuring all Chinese dancers, actors, and musicians. And this was going to be a movie! And they wanted to sell it to one of the big studios. She had this really ahead-of-her-time vision even back then.
TMS: I think it was just last year that Lincoln Center hosted an all-Japanese production of Chicago and that was seen as a big deal. The idea that this was in the works, or people were talking about it in the 40s is a little bit mind-blowing, honestly.
Lung: I don’t know if people remember this but The Good Earth is a book written by Pearl Buck and it became this big movie in 1937, Luise Rainer got an Academy Award for it and she played a Chinese peasant woman. So she was this caucasian actress who put on yellowface to play the lead in Pearl Buck’s best selling movie and I’m sure Li Ling-Ai saw that and said, “Wait a minute. This is not right. The movie I want to make is with a real Chinese actress.”
TMS: It’s a little depressing to think how we’re still fighting a lot of those same fights now.
Lung: Absolutely, Scarlett Johansson, right?
TMS: On some level, when I hear about forgotten Asian-Americans who only get recognition after their death, I find it really sad, but there’s something very inspirational to connect with them in that way, the legacy of fighting the same fight. Do you see yourself as a continuation of Li Ling-Ai?
Lung: Well, I would totally love to have Hollywood take on her story and I think her role would be a fabulous role for a great Asian-American actress. She’s definitely the lead, there’s a Caucasian male attached to this Hollywood movie but she’s gotta be the lead.
TMS: I kind of just want to title this interview in all caps, HEY HOLLYWOOD MAKE A LI LING-AI MOVIE RIGHT NOW. I would love to see that!
Lung: Oh god, it would be fabulous! War, romance…
TMS: It has all the elements of a great epic!
Lung: Two national leaders that are brought together.
TMS: Tell me a bit about the dancing sequence in the movie. I thought they were a really beautiful way to transition between moments and punctuate certain passages of her letters.
Lung: This came out organically from trying to come up with a visual solution to bring what was on paper, the part of the story that was just on paper, to cinematic screens and we chose a technique called shadow theatre to do that, and our shadow theatre partner Larry Reed had been working with a Taiwanese dancer, Wan-Chao Chang and we had some movie clips he had taken from a past production. We were using them in our sample reel and we just—meaning my editor Shirley Thompson and I—we fell in love with this dancer and her visual movements. And Li Ling-Ai herself was a dancer. She had studied not just Chinese dance but also western, modern dance and Japanese Noh movements so Wan-Chao Chang had the same kind of physical education in dance. So she came on to portray Li Ling-Ai as the shadow Li Ling-Ai in our shadow scenes. And she choreographed moves to depict some of the emotions we were trying to get across in the film.
TMS: I think she would have really loved that, to have a mix of all these different media to tell her story—through everything she loved.
Lung: I really think she’s happy. She always wanted a film made about her parent’s lives and so she’s got something better here—a film about her.
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