Friday, May 19, 2017

And the Oscar goes to...Li Ling Ai!

The 1942 Oscars ceremony was the first year that the Academy recognized achievements in documentary film.  One of two films which received a Special award (a certificate rather than a statuette) was Kukan, in which evil deeds by Japan were documented in 1940 -- one episode out of their years-long, relentless bombings targeting a city in China, then called Chungking.

Today a complete print of Kukan does not exist --  not even in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' film archive -- while the rich back story has been wonderfully uncovered by filmmaker Robin Lung in her own documentary Finding Kukan.

Kukan (1941, Adventure Films)

Kukan may have premiered in New York City at the World Theatre in June, 1941.  It also screened in Los Angeles at the Esquire Theatre at 410 No. Fairfax on August 15, 1941 and continued into September.  The Desert Sun, a California newspaper, advertised a showing at the Palm Spring Theatre in January, 1943.

The film made known to the American public of the plight of the Chinese, and it caught the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt.  One outcome of the film was a nation-wide drive to raise funds for the Chinese people.

From the Madera Tribune, August 27, 1941, of Gladys Ling Ai Li and Rey Scott
(Image retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection)

Finding Kukan (2016, Nested Egg Productions)

Sunday at an encore "Best of the Fest" at the CGV Cinemas, Buena Park, Calif.
Finding Kukan was screened at the Visual Communications' L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival, Sunday, April 30th.  This blogger was not able to make that screening, but thankfully an encore screening was happening the following Sunday, May 7th.

Afterwards Robin appeared at the Q & A moderated by VC's Abraham Ferrer.

Robin described her eight-year journey in the making of this film.  She pointed out that much of the film consists of an original music score by Miriam Cutler.  This blogger enjoyed the fluidity of the film with its visual feast of shadow performers portraying "shadow" Li Ling Ai and Rey Scott.

Li Ling Ai and Rey Scott

Who were Li and Scott?  Rey Scott was the writer and photographer who risked life and limb to document the chaos and carnage through the film, Kukan.  Li was surmised in Robin's documentary to have been the actual brainchild of the film, but she was only given onscreen credit as a technical advisor.

Li Ling Ai (Li was her last name) was Hakka-Cantonese Chinese and born in Honolulu in 1908.  She traded the Pineapple for the Big Apple by having settled in New York, and she died in 2003.  The filmmaker Robin was struck by their shared backgrounds, and she regretted having discovered Ling Ai years after her death.

Ling Ai was a college graduate, poet, playwright, dancer, singer, lecturer, and as Robin's film emphasized, she was a political activist and filmmaker, making her a pioneer in many of these accomplishments as a Chinese woman.  But she was also the first and only Chinese woman to host an American television show.  And she publish a memoir in 1972.  [Clarification 6/5/2017:  Anna May Wong starred in her own tv show in 1951.] 

Flamboyant in dress and appearance, she was outspoken and seemed to be comfortable in her skin though she experienced the usual prejudices.  In retrospect Ling Ai has been described endearingly as a drama queen, a diva, a badass.

She was born in Hawaii when it was a fairly new U.S. territory -- she spearheaded the idea for Kukan successfully, all while the American ban on Chinese was still in effect on the U.S. mainland (the Chinese Exclusion Act would be repealed in 1943) -- her ancestral China turned communist in 1949 -- her native Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state in 1959.

An ample amount of news publicity exists that helped Robin in piecing together the story, but these were mostly about the dashing adventures of Rey and his making of Kukan.  Ling Ai's contributions were elusive.

One of the most amazing finds during Robin's quest was tracking down the raw footage held in a Kansas salt mine (about two hours worth of film?) from the post-production manager for a 1993 Turner Broadcasting Station interview with Ling Ai for a special about the life of Robert Ripley (of Ripley's Believe It or Not).  Excerpts of the interview are included in Robin's film - Ling Ai appearing at age 85 - the interviewers intended her to only speak about Ripley but the salty diva veered off onto tangents concerning her own life.  Ling Ai was a co-host on Ripley's Believe It or Not, a national television show during the early years of broadcasting, and Ripley was her friend and associate.

The footage of Ling Ai enamored this blogger.  Perhaps more of the interview could be packaged for a future documentary.  In the meantime, there is a gem of a 26 minute audio of a radio interview with Ling Ai conducting a Chinese cooking lesson and is available on the Internet Archive.  Or more likely she was conducting a Chinese life lesson for listeners.

This blogger just received her used copy of Ling Ai's Life is For a Long Time, a Chinese Hawaiian Memoir, purchased online.  This 1972 work was actually about the immigrant experience of her parents and was also a pioneering first - the Asian American political movement began about 1968 - books about the Asian American experience trickled out in the 1970s, and this blogger took an Asian American history college course about 1975.  So Ling Ai's book, about the Asian experience, was groundbreaking, appearing a handful of years before Maxine Hong Kingston's 1976 book The Woman Warrior.  Because Ling Ai was not an academic as is Kingston (who is a California transplant living and teaching in Hawaii), Ling Ai went undetected on the literary world's radar.

In 1972 perhaps the ongoing war in Vietnam was on her mind.
  But her words could just as well apply to how many of us feel in any period of our lives -- like 2017

A comment made last month by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the U.S. Attorney General, reminds one that Hawaiian islanders are considered to be on the fringe of the country.  Sessions was reacting to a judicial block on the Muslim travel ban by saying “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”

This post appears on May 19th, Ling Ai's birthday!  And it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.