Dozens of students and community members came together in the Student Life Center in Lincroft on Oct. 26 for a rare public presentation by documentary filmmaker Robin Lung.
The program, sponsored by the Brookdale Asia Society and the nonprofit New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia (NJ-ALPHA), began with a screening of Lung’s internationally acclaimed 2016 documentary “Finding Kukan.”
Winner of four awards including Best Documentary at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, “Finding Kukan” follows Lung as she investigates the mystery behind the Academy Award-winning 1939 documentary “Kukan.”
Filmed in China during World War II and released to international praise, “Kukan” was produced in part by un-credited female filmmaker Li Ling-Ai, who worked with cameraman Rey Scott to capture a citizen’s perspective of the war-torn nation. In the ensuing years, however, all copies of the groundbreaking film disappeared, and Ling-Ai’s accomplishments were lost to history.
Released in 2016, “Finding Kukan” documents Lung’s seven-year quest to track down a print of the lost documentary and piece together the inspirational story of its groundbreaking filmmaker. It also offers a piercing look into a variety of sociopolitical developments before and during World War II, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, the bombing of Chinese citizens by Japanese forces and the role of Chinese-American women in advocating for American assistance.
“There are so many things that audiences can take away from this documentary,” said Lung, who hosted a Q&A with students and community members following the screening.
“It’s an important part of American history, of film history and women’s history. And it’s a very universal story about lost history, and how easily important history can get lost. I think everybody has a story in their family that is really important and needs to survive and keep being told over and over again. One big lesson is that, unless we keep telling our stories over and over again and passing them on, that those stories will be lost and forgotten.”
The program, emceed by NJ-ALPHA president Don Town and Brookdale Asia Society advisor and math professor Linda Wang, offered students ample opportunity to speak with Lung about her influences and process for making the film.
For Asia Society president Carla Cabaddu, both the film and the presentation drove home the importance of historical scholarship.
“I find it amazing that a woman from that era was able to do something extraordinary like she did,” said Cabaddu, a math and science major. “It’s also a great way to showcase the importance of this history, especially for people of Asian descent. As I’m more Americanized, I’d like to learn more about the Asian culture. I think it’s important because second- or third-generation Asian descendants often want to know more about their cultural roots.”
Lung also spoke candidly about the challenges she faced during the production of “Finding Kukan,” including multiple failed attempts to find a salvageable print of the original film. During that time, she said, she attended a program at Brookdale on the 75th anniversary of Nanking Massacre co-hosted by NJ-ALPHA and the college’s Center for WWII Studies and Conflict Resolution, which inspired her to join an NJ-ALPHA excursion and travel to China.
She also came into possession of personal letters written by Li Ling-Ai, in which Ling-Ai described her own frustration and despair while attempting to write a family biography. Those letters, and the knowledge that Ling-Ai had worked through similar struggles to see her project through, served as inspiration in a time of doubt, Lung said.
“There is always a moment for even the most successful filmmakers when they believe that their film is terrible and they are on the brink of failure. I learned about perseverance, and that is the other meaning of my film title,” said Lung, explaining that the literal translation of the word “kukan” is “heroic courage under bitter suffering.”
“Not only did I find the film, Kukan, but I really did discover the meaning of the word ‘kukan’ by persevering and seeing this film through.”
For Brookdale public relations major Savannah Cheavers, Lung’s tail of hardship and hard-won success was just as inspirational as the documentary it produced.
“I wanted to say thank you for making this beautiful film,” Cheavers said, during the Q&A. “It was really interesting to see how you persevered through so many difficulties and pushed through to create an amazing documentary. You were even able to use those ‘ruined’ clips in your film, which I thought was really cool too. I just wanted to thank you.”
Learn more about Lung and “Finding Kukan” here.
Check out more photos from Robin Lung’s presentation here.