Re­cov­er­ing China’s World War II past

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By CHRIS DAVIS in New York chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa. com

A sig­nif­i­cant part of China’s World War II film his­tory may be lost, and a new doc­u­men­tary brings to life the chal­lenge of re­cov­er­ing mere scraps of it.

Find­ing Kukan had its world pre­miere at the Hawaii In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val on Nov 5 and North Amer­i­can pre­miere in New York on Tues­day.

It chron­i­cles fourth-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese-Amer­i­can film­maker Robin Lung’s quest to re­cover at least one copy of Kukan, the first doc­u­men­tary to re­ceive an Academy Award — and the only Os­car­win­ning doc­u­men­tary with no known copies in ex­is­tence. The doc­u­men­tary was made this year.

Kukan — the Chi­nese term for heroic courage un­der bit­ter suf­fer­ing — takes view­ers be­hind the scenes of the Ja­panese in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion of the Chi­nese main­land start­ing with the af­ter­math of the Nan­jing Mas­sacre and end­ing with har­row­ing footage of the Aug 24, 1940 Ja­panese bomb­ing of Chongqing.

But the doc­u­men­tary is re­ally about the “un­sung hero” be­hind the film, Hawai­ian­born Li Ling-Ai, who is named as sim­ply a “tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor” in the cred­its, but was re­ally a pro­ducer, fi­nancer and in­spi­ra­tion for film­maker and writer Rey Scott.

Scott, a St Louis-born rov­ing free­lance pho­to­jour­nal­ist, met Li Ling-Ai in Hawaii in 1937, and she con­vinced him that he should travel to China and tell the real story be­hind the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion — get the world to un­der­stand what was re­ally hap­pen­ing there, as she put it.

“Take pic­tures of the real peo­ple fight­ing for China’s free­dom,” she told Scott.

One of Scott’s stills showed a coolie sit­ting on a curb eat­ing his rice while the city burns in the back­ground.

“That’s the story of China I want,” she said. “Life goes on, re­gard­less.”

They sold the photo to a mag­a­zine for $250 and used the money to buy more film.

The footage cul­mi­nated in the doc­u­men­tary, which pre­miered in New York City on June 24, 1941. It was the first ever full-color movie about China and a hit in the­aters.

After Pearl Har­bor, Scott joined the Army as a com­bat pho­tog­ra­pher, but not be­fore sign­ing away the rights to Kukan for three years. By the time he re­turned from the war, the com­pany had gone un­der and all copies of Kukan were lost or de­stroyed.

But one print passed un­no­ticed and poorly stored to one of Scott’s four sons.

The stun­ning footage of the bomb­ing of Chongqing did make it and the doc­u­men­tary comes full cir­cle as the film­maker takes the VHS to Chongqing and screens it for the first time there.

As one city of­fi­cial said after view­ing it, “China is still miss­ing a lot of knowl­edge about this part of its his­tory,” adding that all film of the bomb­ing was from above, the per­spec­tive of the Ja­panese air­planes.

“This film is pre­cious,” he said, thank­ing Li Ling-Ai — who died in New York City in 2003 at the age of 95.

“He­roes come in dif­fer­ent sizes,” he said. “A lit­tle woman can be a big hero.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Kukan mak­ers Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott.

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