Smartly counterprogrammed opposite the orientalized depictions of Asian femininity in Memoirs of a Geisha, The Grace Lee Project is a breezy first-person video essay that goes in search of the average Asian American woman, all the while wondering if there is in fact such a thing. Early in her documentary, filmmaker Grace Lee points out that almost everyone knows a Grace Lee, and what’s more, is inclined to describe her the same way: nice, intelligent, quiet, sweet, studious, sort of forgettable. (Oh, and plays the violin.) Even G.L.’s often think of other G.L.’s—and of themselves—in those non- descript terms. Intrigued and disconcerted by the oppressive commonness of her name—and even more so by the perceived attributes that cling to it—Lee sets out to humanize the sociocultural abstraction and statistical mean that is “Grace Lee.”
She traces the fascination with “Grace” among Korean and Chinese Americans of her parents’ generation to Grace Kelly, the royal embodiment of marrying well. Religion plays a role, too, with a name that’s, as one of the interviewees puts it, wrinkling her nose, “so, like, Christiany.” Indeed Lee, not herself devout, discovers a significant subset of P.K.’s (“pastor’s kids”) among her fellow G.L.’s, one of whom beamingly notes that the desired qualities of the good Christian dovetail nicely with those of the model minority female.
Lee doesn’t dig too deeply into the basis of racial assumptions, which she confirms by quizzing people outside Miss Saigon on their views of Asian women (an amusing montage of white men saying “petite”). A more relevant question here is how much these views are internalized or self-fulfilling. On her website, she surveys hundreds of Grace Lees and concludes that the typical G.L. is a five-foot-three, 25-year-old second- generation Korean American living in California, with a master’s degree and 3.5 years of piano lessons. She wonders, “Does any other name scream ‘generic Asian girl’ as much as Grace Lee?” (She does find one similarly alarmed Grace who unfortunately changed her name to Graise.)
Determined to track down rebel exceptions to this “sorority of super Asians,” Lee hears of a Grace who attempted to burn down her high school—albeit in a failed bid to destroy her poor grades. She also locates a Korean American woman who moved to Seoul to work for a human rights group and open a lesbian bar—only to later retreat into the closet, to the extent that she appears here under pixelated disguise.
The ostensible thesis—that not all Grace Lees are the same—is easy enough to prove: There’s a self-assured Honolulu newscaster,
a bubbly San Jose pastor’s wife, a Silicon Valley teen who balances piano lessons and voodoo doll–making. The two most remarkable Graces, providing both wild-card complexity and feel-good affirmation, suggest a way beyond identity straitjackets. Forty-something Grace Lee, a hearing-impaired single mother helping to raise a friend’s entire abused brood, was adopted from Korea by a white American family that abused her—a woman of seemingly boundless compassion, she has little sentimental attachment to a name assigned to her by the adoption agency. Grace Lee Boggs, an 88-year-old Chinese American activist known in her Detroit community for her work in the black-power movement, suffers less of an identity crisis than her younger counterparts largely because her political awakening predated the Asian American and the women’s movements. Everything about this Grace Lee makes you reconsider what is indeed in a name. Her neighbors call her Grace X.
Film Forum pairs the 68-minute Project with Max Kestner’s
Max by Chance, a briskly digressive half-hour essay in which the Danish director scales his family tree, through hippie parents, back to the eight great- grandparents of whom he is the only great-grandchild. Interjecting whiplash associations and loopy tangents, applying statistical analysis to family history, it’s a home movie auto-portrait that keeps looking outward, an ironic, cosmic redefinition of genealogy as chaos theory.