Re­cov­er­ing China’s WWII past

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHRIS DAVIS in New York chris­davis@chi­nadai­

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 Oscar-win­ning 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, Hawai­ian-born Li LingAi, 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.

Scott would make four trips to China over the next four years, with Li Ling-Ai ac­com­pa­ny­ing him some of the time (it’s not clear how of­ten). She hocked her jewelry to buy film and boat tickets for him and set up con­tacts and con­nec­tions in China.

She told Scott she was sick of movies show­ing China as noth­ing but smoky song clubs. “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.

Scott and Li Ling-Ai be­gan to screen footage around the coun­try to raise aware­ness and money for United China Re­lief.

“China is be­com­ing more and more Amer­i­can­ized daily,” Li told a news­pa­per re­porter in 1939. “The coun­try is a grand chop suey. It’s both mod­ern and old fash­ioned.

“The idea of peace is the se­cret be­hind China. Through count­less cen­turies the Chi­nese have been trained in the ways of peace. And they are fight­ing to­day to main­tain that ideal.”

Eleanor Roo­sevelt in­vited Li and Scott to the White House to show the footage to FDR. Af­ter about 20 min­utes of the pres­i­dent’s valu­able time had been spent on it, the pro­jec­tion­ist turned it off.

The pres­i­dent or­dered for it to con­tinue and af­ter­ward ques­tioned Scott and Li in de­tail, im­press­ing them with his deep knowl­edge of what was go­ing on in China.

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.

With her brash style and flair for fash­ion, Li Ling-Ai be­came a celebrity and a dar­ling of gos­sip colum­nists. She in­vented a “Kukan” hairdo and cre­ated a scan­dal by claim­ing that the art of strip­tease was in­vested in China.

The big­ger-than-life Robert “Be­lieve It or Not” Ri­p­ley in­vited Li to a meet­ing. She de­scribes it:

“Mr Ri­p­ley, what is it you want? Be­cause if you’re look­ing for a sweet­heart, wife or mistress, I’m not it.”

Ri­p­ley nearly fell off his chair, say­ing, “I’ve never heard a woman talk like you be­fore.” He put her in charge of his Far East de­part­ment.

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, what you do, as one ex­pert says, with films no­body wants.

But one print passed un­no­ticed and poorly stored to one of Scott’s four sons. One of the threads of the new doc­u­men­tary is the ef­fort by restora­tion ex­perts at the Acad­emy Film Ar­chive to re­store Kukan to its orig­i­nal glory, an ef­fort that comes up short un­for­tu­nately.

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.”


Kukan mak­ers Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott.

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