Lee explores stereotypes with grace

March 16, 2006

Lee explores stereotypes with grace

Directed by Grace Lee, ‘The Grace Lee Project’ portrays the lives of Asian American women

Shuang-Ning Ling

Grace Lee takes a cross-country journey to find other women with her name. Making the film helped her find her own identity and the strength to defy stereotypes of Asian Americans today.

Courtesy Grace Lee

Growing up as an ethnic minority in her predominantly white hometown in Missouri, it was a new experience for Korean-American filmmaker Grace Lee to move to California. Along the way she learned of countless other Grace Lees from friends. They always turned out to be “soft-spoken,” “studious,” “overachieving,” “intelligent,” “Christian” and, as Lee wryly notes, piano players.

Fearing confinement to a life of figurative homogeneity, Lee embarks on an impulse journey across America and Korea. Motivated by what she humorously terms “existential dread,” she seeks out namesakes that both do and do not fit the standard Grace Lee bill.

I’ve wanted to name a future daughter Grace for most of my life. After viewing OFFScreen’s latest offering, The Grace Lee Project, however, I found myself to be one of thousands. Lee precisely highlights the influence of attaching preconceived notions to a name and the effect it has on one’s individuality. With a deceptively simple premise, she explores the stereotype of the Asian-American female. Altogether she creates a refreshingly layered approach to the documentary as a genre.

Lee’s wildly unscientific research is fun to watch. The Grace Lees she finds include a 16-year-old Harvard student, a Filipino cruise-ship singer and a significantly large number of women named for Grace Kelly. She is insistent, however, on finding the rebels or college dropouts who “fall through the cracks.”

“Stereotypes exist because there is often a grain of truth associated with them,” Lee admitted in an e-mail interview. The question is to what extent Lee’s unflinchingly self-centered project perpetuates the stereotypes she declaims. Along with the standard Grace Lees with Christian backgrounds, the more promising insurgents tend to fall back into conformity and submit to typecasting.

For instance, one Grace who attempted to burn her high school down was motivated by a desire to destroy her less-than-outstanding grade reports before her parents could receive them. There’s also a past lesbian activist who gave up her work in Korea to stop “bringing shame” to her parents. Her forbidden presence in the film is represented by a blurred-out image.

Lee reiterates that she is interested in exploring the contradictions within our identities and “how much they are shaped by our resistance to the forces that try to box us in as certain things.” Her playful approach serves as Project’s backbone and as a reminder not to take her voiceovers as seriously as the thornier issues covered.

Lee’s likeable ability to laugh at her own paranoid anxieties is complemented by the film’s portrayal of two truly atypical Grace Lees — the 88-year-old Detroit African-American rights activist and an unmarried mother who risked her life to rescue a friend from marital abuse.

Not knowing how the documentary would end was one of Lee’s difficulties during filmmaking. Perhaps this is why the film concludes abruptly, as Lee reconciles the similarities and differences she shares with her alter-egos. In the end, a name like Grace Lee may be forgettable, but The Grace Lee Project successfully illustrates there is more to people than their names.

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