How Finding Kukan Was Found

Air date: Sat., June 30, 10:00 pm

 

By Liberty Peralta

 

Finding Kukan makes its Hawai‘i broadcast debut, Thursday, June 28 at 9 pm. The documentary tells the story of Li Ling-Ai, a female film producer from Hawai‘i who was uncredited for her work on an Oscar-winning documentary about World War II in China called Kukan. A full copy of Kukan has long been missing, while Ling-Ai’s story has gone untold for decades. Both mysteries are unraveled over a seven-year journey on Finding Kukan.

 

The producer and director of Finding Kukan, Robin Lung, spoke with us by phone about the film.

 

Robin Lung
Robin Lung, producer and director of Finding Kukan

 

PBS Hawaiʻi: How did you come across Li Ling-Ai’s story?

Robin Lung: I read Li Ling-Ai’s memoir, Life is for a Long Time, about her physician parents in early 20th century Hawai‘i. I was searching for a Chinese American woman to profile, and I was really interested in the ’30s and ’40s, so I was researching women of that era. There was a biography of Li Ling-Ai on the book’s jacket flap that said that she had worked on this film Kukan that had won an Academy Award. I had never heard of Kukan or Li Ling-Ai before I read her memoir, so that really piqued my interest.

 

How did you come across her memoir?

I had been reading these vintage mystery novels that a friend of mine from New York sent me. They’re written by Juanita Sheridan, and they feature a Chinese American female detective named Lily Wu who solved crime in New York City and Hawai‘i. In an interview, Juanita Sheridan said that she based Lily Wu on some real life friends of hers from Hawai‘i; she had lived in Hawai‘i in the 1930s. That really caught my attention because Lily Wu is not your stereotypical shy, submissive Asian woman. She’s really smart, she’s really independent and audacious. This detective captured my imagination, and I wanted to find out who the real-life woman she was based on might be. I did a lot of research and that’s how I came across Li Ling-Ai’s memoir.

 

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences [which oversees the Oscars] didn’t have a copy of Kukan, how many other Oscar-winning films did they not have?

Kukan is the only Oscar-winning documentary that the Academy didn’t have a copy of. It was very unusual for them not to have a copy of this documentary because they actively collect their Oscar-winning films. That was another question that I wanted to explore in my film: Why did it get lost? We structured it as a detective story on purpose because we couldn’t find definitive answers for a lot of the questions that I asked. Shirley Thompson, who acted as the editor on the film, worked closely with me for five years. The film that I wanted to make is not the film that we ended up with, and that was because circumstances prevented me from having my ideal world. [laughs]

 

What did that ideal story look like?

The story of Li Ling-Ai and her filmmaking partner Rey Scott, and how they made Kukan, is like this Cinderella story. Two novices with no experience in filmmaking, on a whim, decide to make this film about what’s happening in China, and it ends up winning an Academy Award and is shown at the White House for President Roosevelt. My ideal story in my head was that I was going to find out every single detail about this story, and I was going to present it as a very conventional historical documentary, much like the Ken Burns documentaries.

 

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott in front of the Clay Theater for the San Francisco premiere of Kukan, 1941

 

You had to let go of what you wanted this to look like and let it transform into something else. What was the takeaway for you in doing that?
You’re not in control of your material a lot of the time. You have to work with what you have and what you get. That challenge in how to make something with the limited palette of material you have is what sparks new creativity. That’s the fun part of filmmaking.

 

I also learned so much about how history is told and who gets to tell history. It’s activated me to preserve our own local history because I see that there’s this master narrative that comes from people in power. Our island stories are vulnerable to disappearing over time because the powers-that-be are not working hard to ensure that those stories get carried forward. If we don’t tell our own stories, and we don’t work hard to preserve the material that can tell those stories, then no one else will.

 

Perhaps there’s someone reading this who might not identify as a storyteller, but may be motivated to help preserve our stories. What can they do?

I came across this story after Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott had passed away. As I tried to interview people, a lot of times I would connect with them too late; they would have just passed away right before I met them. I think that’s a very common problem that we all face, that we don’t think to ask questions of our elders until it’s too late. There are so many rich stories in everybody’s family.

Also, the questions that are important historically are sometimes things that older people don’t want to talk about. They’re tough times, and those are stories that we need to learn lessons from. Finding Kukan is a bittersweet film because I do find out amazing things, but there are certain things that I’ll never be able to know.

What I would hope that people will do after seeing this film is that they sit down and talk with their elders. Take out an iPhone or a tape recorder and have it rolling when they ask, “What did you do in the war?” or “Why did we move to Hawai‘i?” Those basic questions that they want to know more about and really want to get the answers to.

_____
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Keep the Programs You Love Going

Become a sustaining supporter of PBS Hawai‘i with a monthly gift.

More From PBS Hawai‘i

Read More

Now loading...