Meet the Chinese-American Woman Behind the Very First Oscar-Winning Documentary

Documentaries have been winning Oscars since 1942. At the time, 25 films were nominated for the inaugural category, which later branched into feature and short films.

However, their history of recognition dates back to the year before, when one received an Honorary Academy Award for its superb storytelling of China’s resistance to Japan in the earlier part of World War II.

That documentary is “Kukan”, the brainchild of a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

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Born in Hawaii, Li is not exactly a household name, and much of the reason behind goes back to the film itself.

While she was, indeed, the brain behind “Kukan”, a White man named Rey Scott was said to have written and directed it.

And yes, Scott received the honorary Oscar, then a certificate, which praised him “for his extraordinary achievement in producing ‘Kukan,’ the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions.”

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Somehow, the Oscar-winning documentary was misplaced and considered lost through the years. A copy was restored at the Academy, but it is incomplete.

Li, who was relegated as its “Technical Advisor,” may never be recognized for her apparent attempt to introduce the American audience — especially Chinese Americans — to China’s ethnicities and destruction in wartime.

Fortunately, Chinese American filmmaker Robin Lung took the noble task of putting pieces of “Kukan” together and rediscovering the legendary woman behind it.

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She chronicled it all in a 2016 feature length documentary, aptly titled “Finding Kukan”.

In essence, “Finding Kukan” is an adventure that aims to decode who Li is, as well as her mysterious relationship to Scott.

Presented in reenactments in shadow and voiceover — featuring Kelly Hu and Daniel Dae Kim — the film recounts Li’s struggles as an Asian American woman pursuing accurate representation of her people.

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In the film, Lung traveled to China to share footage from “Kukan” to families of those affected in the Japanese bombing. Ultimately, connecting the Chinese American and Chinese experiences left her a personal touch.

She told Splinter in an earlier interview:

“For me it was very personal. I didn’t grow up knowing about Chinese history and the history of Asia in World War II. I grew up in a very much American school system. We learned about the Holocaust, we learned about the Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima, but we didn’t learn anything about the Rape of Nanking or the fact that China was our ally in World War II. All I knew about China was, ‘Communist: enemy, Mao: bad.’ So this was a really eye-opening experience to learn about China in the ’40s.”

Lung pointed that the biggest challenge in “Finding Kukan” was the search for Li’s story:

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“For me, the biggest thing was that Li Ling-Ai’s story wasn’t documented before, and a lot of Rey Scott’s story was documented. There there were articles on Rey Scott. When they wrote about Li Ling-Ai, it was in the women’s section of the paper. And so they would write about the dress she wore, the color of the fingernail polish she had on, but they didn’t report on her behind-the-scenes work, the part that I really want to know about.

“She herself promoted herself in the way that the media wanted her to talk about herself. She knew how to get publicity. She was beautiful, so she posed for pictures and she did what she could, but there was this whole other story behind the scenes, and I wasn’t able to find any of it, and that was the most difficult thing.”

Needless to say, Lung’s painstaking research bore the fruit that is “Finding Kukan”, a tribute to the 1941 masterpiece of a badass Chinese American woman. The documentary, especially for young, female filmmakers, has since won notable awards.

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“Kukan” may still be lost, but with Lung’s work, we can now rest assured that Li is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Check out the trailer of “Finding Kukan” below. The film is available for educational and institutional use here.

Photos: Screenshots via Shirley Thompson on SThompsonEditorial/YouTube

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