30 November 2005 | Coolestmovies
One of the best documentaries of 2005, funny and pointed
In THE GRACE LEE PROJECT, filmmaker Grace Lee manages to cram a textbook worth of insight into a scant 70 minute running time, and, with a sense of humor akin to that shown by Morgan Spurlock in SUPER SIZE ME, presents a litany of telling observations about growing up female in a diasporic Asian (largely Korean) culture that, to hear the myriad Grace Lees on display tell it, almost unwittingly turns its young women into closed-minded do-gooders who, even when they do muster up the gumption to rebel, only do so out of fear of losing face for their parents and the greater community. In other words, girls who never seem to have any true sense of independence or freedom, and basically the polar opposite of the filmmaker herself - a self-professed (in the film) non-believer from a Christian Korean family who dated and married a Caucasian (also in the film) and decided on a career that all but guaranteed a hard-scrabble existence (although this film should change all that). Nonetheless, her own parents, a soft-spoken, humble couple, are featured in the films opening moments and if they harbor any feelings of embarrassment about their daughter's life choices, it's not evident on screen.
The film will probably resonate best with Korean women ages 25-35, as Lee genuinely seems unable to find a Korean Grace Lee that deviates far from familial and societal expectations ("quiet, soft spoken, Christian, petite, intelligent, really nice and with 3.5 years of piano lessons"), and those she does highlight are hard-pressed to define what makes them "different" from what their generic names imply. Nonetheless, all the subjects, while sharing essentially the same existential quandary, which itself is more a symptom of their upbringing than their parents' choice of name, still manage to betray little eccentricities and repressed desires to subvert the system, so to speak. Women of Chinese extraction, most notably Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs ("Grace X"), are also featured prominently and tend to come off as the most atypical of the bunch in one way or another, perhaps because of the culture's longer presence in the west, perhaps not. Another Chinese Grace Lee who came from an abusive adopted home and in turn took in an abused woman and her three daughters later in life, provides much of the emotion of the doc's final 20 minutes.
No film about young Korean women made by a young Korean woman could possibly sidestep the issue of religion, what with Christianity an ever-present force in the diasporic Korean community. Lee makes no bones about her thoughts on the subject in sequences involving a P.K. ("Pastor's Kid") who has her entire life planned out while still just a teenager, most likely unaware of the hidden machinations that conspire to keep her on the path she's "chosen." In voice-over, Lee says she envies the girl's unsullied and eager acceptance of her future ("marriage at 25, three kids each spaced five years apart), but the images presented on screen subtly suggest the director knows that life may throw up unexpected obstacles to challenge her glassy-eyed optimism. The girl's father is shown operating a modest but dedicated church out of his backyard and she dutifully quotes the requisite scripture to explain why this is acceptable, while the sharp-eyed viewer will no doubt see plain evidence of a split within this particular Korean community's church that has probably given this Grace Lee an even narrower world-view.
Continuing the theme, Lee meets a Pastor's wife and, in one of the film's more obviously calculated moments, shows her explaining how young girls can always get a "do-over," should they lose their virginity, during a discussion of the dreaded S-word at a Christian youth group meeting. The grumbles of frustration heard in the audience at the woman's well-meaning hypocrisy was undoubtedly the desired effect.
In the end, the audience is left with many excellent avenues for discussion. For as alike as these women are in both name and social conditioning, life will throw many of them in fascinating new directions - if only they'd have the encouragement of a community, and the courage of Grace X, to see where they lead.
THE GRACE LEE PROJECT, though it lacks the marketing power behind docs like THE CORPORATION, SUPER SIZE ME or the collected works of Michael Moore, easily joins their ranks as one of the most entertaining pop-docs of the year.
After the screening at Toronto's REEL Asian Film Festival, Grace Lee answered questions from the audience (four of whom were Grace Lees, including two from the film!), including the inevitable query about a sequel. She claimed she was done with the subject, but I couldn't help but think of Michael Apted's 7-UP series. Obviously, a GRACE LEE PROJECT every seven years might be overkill, but at least one follow-up, say in ten years time, would be an ideal way to see how these women, many of whom are still at crucially undefined moments in their lives, have turned out in comparison to the expectations both they (and others) have for themselves in the film.