Backlot Bitch: Retrieving the Past to Educate Our Future

Li Ling Ai and Rey Scott pose for Photo Op as producer and director of Kukan.

During the BBC documentary The History of Film, the narrator explains that one of the purposes of this documentary is to revisit what we consider is cinematic history. He tells the audience that the history of film we recognize is inherently racist by omission of non-Western films. Technique and styles that were developed on the other side of the globe were routinely ignored as a rule, with a few minor exceptions like Akira Kurosawa and Sanjit Ray.

Back in the States, we're still dealing with race on an almost daily basis in the movie industry. Otherwise, I wouldn't have much to write about.

The industry was dominated by white men from the get-go, and once the studios set up shop, good luck to any person of color actor or actress who didn't want to play stereotypes. But a few hold outs stand out, and today, I'm thinking of Anna May Wong . As the first Chinese-American movie star, she fought against stereotypes and eventually opted to leave Hollywood for England when serious roles would go to white actresses in yellowface. In recent years, she's become better known, with a few solid documentaries airing on TV and better access to her films.

And then there are women behind the camera, busting myths and misconceptions in the male-dominated industry. Director Robin Lung is attempting to do the same thing with Li Ling-Ai, bringing attention to an otherwise overlooked contributor to the history of film. She was the producer behind the Oscar-winning documentary, "Kukan." Unfortunately, this is the also only Oscar-winning documentary that has no archival print in the Academy's vaults, which means it could be lost. This is not uncommon in the days of studio vault fires that would burn up celluloid reels or the habitual burning of film prints to reclaim their silver content. What is tragic however, is that this piece of documentary history might be gone for good.

Asian-Americans have long been involved in the movie industry, but we're only just now hearing about their contributions through filmmakers like Lung. Wong wasn't in many film textbooks a few years ago, and now she is. Li Ling Ai might be next to have her name alongside other documentarians like Merian C. Cooper and Robert J. Flaherty. I have my fingers crossed to see this documentary soon. Check out Lung's awesome trailer below:

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Li Ling-Ai and KUKAN

Thanks for the great tribute, Monica. Your article is a reminder that history is constantly evolving and becoming richer as the media-makers themselves become more diverse. The copy of the Oscar-winning KUKAN that I discovered is being given a frame by frame restoration as I type this. It will take some time, but the Academy will be able to re-premiere the film and Li's historic achievement will be able to enrich and educate once again. I want to make sure that her contribution to the film doesn't get overlooked. For anyone who wants to help out the effort, please check out our website We have a Kickstarter campaign going on right now, and you can become a part of the effort for as little as $1.00. Mahalo nui loa, Robin Lung, Producer/Director of FINDING KUKAN

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