The Shadows of Li Ling Ai

Piecing together the forgotten legacy of the Chinese American producer behind the landmark film, Kukan.

By ShadowLight Productions

Kukan (1941) is a firsthand account of the Chinese resistance during the Second Sino Japanese War and was the first documentary to receive an Oscar for “its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions.” Though Kukan was an unprecedented achievement in filmmaking, the preservation of the film’s prints were neglected, and lost like so many other films of it’s era, due to lack of foresight on the importance of film archival practices at the time.

Making of the shadow sequences in Finding Kukan (2013) by ShadowLight ProductionsShadowLight Productions

The 7 Year Itch: The Search for Li-Ling Ai

While Rey Scott received Kukan’s public accolades, little is known of Kukan’s driving force, Li-Ling Ai. Over the course of a seven year investigation, director Robin Lung pieced together the obscured legacy of this Chinese American filmmaker in the documentary, Finding Kukan.

Portrait of Li Ling Ai (1941) by UnknownShadowLight Productions

A Star is Born

Li-Ling Ai was born as the sixth of nine children to two Chinese immigrant parents in Hawaii in 1908. Having many talents, she was a published playwright, a notable dancer, a theater director, pilot,  and a relief worker. 

By Jack WilkesLIFE Photo Collection

A Life Interrupted

Li Ling Ai moved to China and studied Music and Theatre at the Beijing Institute of Fine Arts. As the Japanese invasion of China posed major threats, Li Ling Ai promptly returned home to Hawaii seeking safety.

Making of the shadow sequences in Finding Kukan (2013) by ShadowLight ProductionsShadowLight Productions

Rear Window

Director Robin Lung, a Chinese American filmmaker from Hawaii herself, felt a strong connection to Li Ling Ai's narrative. In her persistence of uncovering Li Ling Ai’s legacy, Lung located the last known complete print of Kukan under the possession of Rey Scott’s descendants.

Making of the shadow sequences in Finding Kukan (2013) by ShadowLight ProductionsShadowLight Productions

The Lady (Un)Vanishes

Robin Lung & ShadowLight Productions collaborated in composing re-enactments from Ai’s obscured story for Finding Kukan.  These scenes depicted moments from found memoirs, oral histories, and correspondence between Li-Ling Ai and Rey Scott in expressive shadows sequences.

Making of the shadow sequences in Finding Kukan (2013) by ShadowLight ProductionsShadowLight Productions

Introducing: ShadowLight Productions

After much experimentation and deep study in folk shadow theatre, founder Larry Reed developed a new dynamic technique in the early 1990’s blending traditional shadow theatre techniques with modern film styles to create a sense of live animation, or Cinematic Shadow Theatre.

Excerpt from Finding Kukan (1) (2016) by Nested Egg ProductionsShadowLight Productions

The Producer

Ai funded the film by taking on various jobs and selling her possessions, including her family’s jewelry. She was also integral in connecting Scott with a network of people in China, and advised him on where to go, and what to capture.

Excerpt from Finding Kukan (2) (2016) by Nested Egg ProductionsShadowLight Productions

So the Story Begins, and It Looked Something Like This...

Li Ling Ai befriends newspaper journalist, Rey Scott. As the news of rising conflict in Shanghai (1937) was reaching Americans, Li Ling Ai encouraged Rey Scott to get on the next boat to China and cover the Second-sino Japanese War in detail.

Making of the shadow sequences in Finding Kukan (2013) by ShadowLight ProductionsShadowLight Productions

As Rey Scott Filmed and Smuggled Footage Back Into the US...

Li Ling Ai was committed to encouraging Americans to witness the perils of war on the Chinese people, and join efforts to aid their liberation from Japanese occupation. Though she had no technical experience of filmmaking, she was certain that a film had to be made at all costs.

And the Oscar Goes To...

In 1942 Rey Scott received an honorary Academy Award “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.”

Li Ling Ai & Rey Scott Shadows (2016) by Nested Egg ProductionsShadowLight Productions

An Affair to Remember?

While unconfirmed, scholars and friends of Ai suspect that a working collaboration also resulted in a romantic partnership. It is believed that their clandestine relationship may have been kept secret as interracial relationships were taboo, and in certain states, illegal.

Li Ling Ai & Rey Scott at screening (1941) by UnknownShadowLight Productions

The Conversation

In a 1993 interview, Li Ling Ai revealed that she decided to forgo the credit,  because she felt that the need for American audiences to see the film and understand the Chinese struggle took precedence over public recognition. 

Shadow of a Doubt

After interviewing scholars and friends closest to Ai in Finding Kukan, it is suspected that public recognition of Ai's work in Kukan's promotion would hinder it's ability to pick up distribution because of widespread racist and sexist discrimination in the 1940s America.

The Watershow Extravaganza (2016/2016) by Sophie MichaelArts Council Collection

Vinegar Syndrome

While the 16mm print has been located by Lung & partially restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, many parts of the film remain damaged beyond recognition due to a decay commonly known as vinegar syndrome. The complete work of Kukan still remains unknown. 

Finding Kukan Documentary Trailer (2016) by Nested Egg ProductionsShadowLight Productions

Coming Attraction

The legacy of Li Ling Ai, pioneer Chinese American producer, lives on today in the documentary film, Finding Kukan, reconstructing her life’s narrative for future generations.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to Nested Egg Productions & Filmmaker Robin Lung. Finding Kukan is available for rent and for purchase (for institutional & educational use) with New Day Films. For more information visit http://www.nestedeggproductions.com/ .

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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