Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:49 PM CST – China


Lost Documentary

Reel Resurrection

Kukan, a documentary about China’s resistance against Japan during World War II, produced by Chinese-American Ling’ai Li and shot by American journalist Rey Scott, won an Academy Award in 1942, before being lost, seemingly forever. 70 years later, Robin Lung, another Chinese-American, located the only copy and facilitated its re-release. NewsChina looks into the story of the documentary and the people behind it

Robin Lung Photo by Dong Jiexu

Contemporary poster art for Kukan: The Battle Cry of China

In 1941, China saw most of its cities and ports fall under the control of the Japanese Imperial Army, with the wartime captital Chongqing (Chungking) bombarded several times. Across the Pacific, the US, still officially neutral, received little first-hand information about the conflict. However, with the theatrical release of a documentary movie, Kukan, Americans witnessed for the first time the horrors that the Chinese people were suffering.

Subtitled The Battle Cry of China, the documentary was produced by Chinese-American artist Ling’ai Li and shot by American photo-journalist Rey Scott, the latter having traveled from Hong Kong to Chongqing through various Chinese cities, narrating what he saw and heard, including the Japanese blitz of Chongqing on April 19 and 20, 1940.

The 90-minute documentary received widespread praise following its release in the US, and Rey Scott won an Honorary Academy Award – the Oscar for best documentary feature – in 1941. However, the only copy of the film disappeared before it was ever screened outside of the US. In the database of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the documentary was labeled “lost.”

70 years later, Robin Lung, a Chinese-American independent filmmaker, began her search for the documentary due to her interest in prominent Chinese-American women of previous generations like Ling’ai Li, and with the help of Rey Scott’s family, she was able to locate it. She then facilitated negotiations between the Scotts and a Chinese partner to release the film in China.

On April 8, 2015,the Chongqing Institute of the Rear Areas in China’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression signed an agreement with the Scott family for the rights to use the documentary, and announced that it would release part of it in China in May. “It is more indubitable proof of Japan’s bombardment of Chongqing and the massacre of innocent civilians [during World War II],” Zhou Yong, director of the institute, told the media.

“Though filmed by a Westerner, the documentary is objective and accurate. Rey Scott and Ling’ai Li made it with sympathy and respect to China, and also helped the world to know more about the war and the Chinese people,” he added.

Lung and Li

According to Robin Lung, it was the similarity between Ling’ai Li’s background and her own – both women were born in Hawaii – that aroused her interest in tracking down the documentary. By coincidence, Lung’s father had studied Chinese at a school run by Li’s father.

A fourth-generation child of a Chinese-American family, as a college student Lung developed a strong interest in her origins and race. Several years ago, Lung planned to make a documentary about Chinese-American women, and received a book written by Li from one of her friends, Life is for a Long Time. In the book, Li narrated her family’s immigration to and experience in Hawaii, but mentioned little about her own life. Lung, however, was intrigued by a single sentence at the end of the book, saying that Li had once made a documentary about the Chinese resistance against Japan, named Kukan.

Never having heard of the film, Lung looked it up on the Internet, but failed to find much beyond a simple description of the film and the award it received. Copies seemed to be nonexistent – even the AMPAS, the body that administered the Academy Awards, had only a fragmented copy. They told Lung that they had been looking for a complete print, but with no success.

Feeling a growing attachment to Li, Lung decided to delve deeper into her life, to search for Li’s only documentary. “Information online showed that Li was an actress, a dancer and a writer, rather than an artist. I found that she hadn’t left behind any masterpieces,” Lung told NewsChina.

According to Lung, Li was born into a family of doctors in 1908, and received her middle school education in Punahou, at a school later attended by future US President Barack Obama. Raised on both Western and Chinese culture, Li grew into “a charming lady.” During her stay in Beijing in the 1930s, Li studied dance and various Chinese traditional arts, including Peking opera, also meeting her future husband, though their marriage would not last long.

Lung once found a video clip of an interview with an 85-year-old Li, dressed in a traditional sleeved robe and an elaborate Qing Dynasty-style headdress, speaking eloquently, with vigor and confidence.

In Lung’s opinion, given Li’s independent and unconventional conduct, the break-up of her short-lived marriage likely had little effect on her mentality – witnessing the Japanese occupation of China, Li cared more about finding a way to help her ancestral homeland. So, at a time when few women undertook such projects, Li tried various means to raise money for China, such as participating in a fashion show conducted by United China Relief, and even receiving training to fly bomber and transport planes, attempting to assist the Chinese war effort.

Due to limited contact with the outside world, China had something of a poor image in the West at the time. Li hoped to make a documentary featuring real Chinese people, in order to draw more international attention to their plight. By chance, Li came across Rey Scott, a photo-journalist who had taken a number of shocking photos of the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, and managed to convince him to shoot a documentary about the battle for China.

“I had never felt proud of being Chinese before I knew about Li. But Li believed that Chinese people are always noble, and she felt proud to be one. It was Li that changed my thinking,” said Lung.

The Search

Li’s story provided Lung with an abundance of information about Chinese-American women of earlier generations, but failed to help her find a copy of the documentary. Lung described the feeling as “seeing leaves swaying on a tree, but never being able to touch them.”

Unable to find any more leads about the documentary from Li’s relatives, Lung changed tack, setting out to contact the family of Rey Scott. After trawling through online obituaries, she eventually found Scott’s son through a genealogy website, and got in contact with him through Twitter and Facebook.

Lung remembered that her heart leapt when Scott’s son called her, but she was disappointed to learn that he knew nothing about his father’s film. To comfort Lung, the man told her that he would ask his brothers for help. Lung described the search as a rollercoaster of emotions.

A breakthrough finally came in the form of Rey Scott’s granddaughter Michelle Scott, who told Lung that she had seen some records of her grandfather’s documentary in his basement. They found a complete copy of the documentary that had lain undisturbed for over 70 years. “People always focus on their current reality, while ignoring their ancestors. Americans and the Chinese may be the same on this point,” Lung told NewsChina.

The Documentary

After three years of repair, AMPAS restored the copy into an 85-minute videotape, which opened with a shot of the south of the Yangtze River: green mountains and a green lake form the background, while a pretty girl smiles shyly at the camera. Suddenly, the shot cuts to scenes of war.

Financed by Ling’ai Li, who reportedly sold all her property to make the film, from 1937 to 1940 Rey Scott traveled over 3,000 kilometers, venturing nearly halfway across war-torn China, by plane, train, bus, cart, sheepskin raft and on horseback. Holding a handheld 16-millimeter camera loaded with Kodak color film, he filmed various groups of Chinese people who, in the face of Japanese aggression, gave an impression of being tough, firm, indomitable and hopeful. The documentary’s four-minute highlights reel, for example, shows people in Chongqing buying fruit on the street just before a bombing, though many of them would likely be dead within hours.

Most striking is a 17-minute segment composed of shots of a Japanese air raid on Chongqing, shot from a vantage point on the roof of the US Embassy, which was near the center of the bombardment, during which around 370 bombers dropped over 200 tons of explosives.

On December 17, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the US into the war. That same year, Kukan debuted in the US, and soon became a powerful call to action, inspiring many to donate to aid funds for China. Influenced by the film, many young Americans reportedly joined the American Volunteer Group to fight Japan.

“It is one of the most awesome examples of motion picture yet seen in these days of horrific news events... somehow this wanton violence appears even more horrible than the scenes we have witnessed of London’s destruction,” read a commentary in the New York Times that year. Meanwhile, the Academy Awards panel recognized Rey Scott “for his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions.” According to media reports at the time, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had planned to only watch 20 minutes of the film at a private White House screening, but altered his schedule and insisted on finishing it. After the screening, he wrote a message on a traditional Chinese scroll, praising the people of Chongqing for their dauntless spirit in the face of aggression.

Despite its success, the documentary changed very little in the lives of Li and Scott. Li’s family took little interest in her endeavors, and few of them acknowledged her achievement. Meanwhile, Scott returned to journalism, and remained in the industry for the rest of his life. Were it not for Lung’s efforts, perhaps Li’s and Scott’s greatest achievement could have been lost forever.

Lung told NewsChina that she felt very excited about the film’s resurrection, calling it “a victory over time, and over the forgetting of history.” She is currently working on her own documentary, about her search for the film, named Finding Kukan.


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