Movie Review: Finding Kukan

Earlier this month, Robin Lung’s new documentary, Finding Kukan, made its DOC NYC premiere and it’s bringing a much-needed wave of interest in Asian-American contributions to the film industry.

Finding Kukan tells the story of Li Ling-Ai, a Chinese-American woman from Hawaii who sets out on a mission to change America’s perception of Chinese culture. Tired of seeing Chinese-Americans reduced to caricatures in the media, Ling-Ai takes it upon herself to document the real China of the 1930’s –  one that was destined for ruin as a result of Japanese invasion.

With the help of acclaimed photojournalist Rey Scott, Ling-Ai begins a journey that takes them both to Academy Awards and the White House. She enlists Scott to travel to war-torn China to capture the country’s devastation with his camera. Meanwhile, Ling-Ai – who is armed with business sense and loads of charm – singlehandedly funds, directs and markets the film, all seemingly without stepping foot in China.

The result is a beautiful colored film called Kukan that shows China as Americans have never seen it before. Despite receiving an Honorary Academy Award and earning Ling-Ai and Scott a meeting with President Roosevelt, Kukan was largely forgotten after its initial run. And Ling-Ai was never properly credited for her role in its production.

In Finding Kukan, Robin Lung seeks answers about Ling-Ai’s role in the film, her relationship with Rey Scott, and if there’s a way to restore one of the few prints she’s able to find. As parts of the Ling-Ai story unfold throughout the film, one gets the sense that both Scott and Ling-Ai had to be cautious about their mission. Many details about the making of Kukan are shrouded in mystery – from how Ling-Ai secured funds to whether she actually visited China during its production.

But there is one thing about Li Ling-Ai’s role in Kukan that’s abundantly clear: she was courageous and unrelenting in her quest to give a downtrodden China a sympathetic voice in America. And Lung does an excellent job of helping the audience understand just how determined Ling-Ai was to achieve her goal.

The documentary comes at the right time. Earlier this year, a slew of Asian-American actors called for more visibility in the media. And with more calls for diversity in film and television than ever before, Finding Kukan and the forgotten story of Li Ling-Ai remind us all how far we’ve come and how much work we’ve yet to do.


Watch the trailer for Finding Kukan:


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