By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Are we imprisoned by our names? In her small, witty autobiographical documentary, “The Grace Lee Project,” a Korean-American filmmaker named Grace Lee, born in Columbia, Mo., and living in Los Angeles, explores the personal and social ramifications of a name she finds oppressive. All her life, Ms. Lee says at the beginning of the film, she has felt pressure to live up to the qualities that many of the people randomly interviewed in the documentary associate with a name that conjures the kind of precocious high achiever who enters Harvard at 16.
Smart, nice, quiet, accomplished, polite and pure are some of the other positive traits that people tick off when asked to free-associate about the name. But how positive are they really, when many of those asked to remember Grace Lees from high school can’t recall them very clearly? Nice, quiet and polite also imply passivity, Ms. Lee reflects: How can these girls be “so impressive and forgettable at the same time?” She flashes on an image of the Grace Lees of the world as “thousands of interchangeable drones.”
Determined to find exceptions to the stereotype, Ms. Lee undertakes a computer search for Grace Lees around the world. Among those she meets are a cruise ship singer in the Philippines, a newscaster in Honolulu and Bruce Lee’s mother. By this time, she has come up with a composite portrait of Grace Lee: an American-born Korean woman who is 25, lives in California, is 5 feet 3 inches tall, has had three and a half years of piano lessons and probably has a master’s degree.
“Are there any Grace Lees out there who actually break the mold?” she wonders. An encouraging lead takes her to San Francisco to look into the story of one who tried to burn down her high school. But it turns out that the girl was trying only to destroy embarrassing records of her disappointing academic performance and created only minor property damage. In another promising lead she meets a former lesbian activist in Seoul, who has retreated from politics and now refuses to be photographed lest she bring shame to her family. We also meet a 14-year-old artist in Silicon Valley, who may fit the conventional image, but who takes out her anger at the pressure put on her in her violent, gory art works.
For many, the name Grace is associated with Christian grace. And we meet more than one Asian-American Grace Lee who is a Christian. Another inspiration, one the filmmaker finds troubling, is the actress Grace Kelly.
One iconoclast stands out. Grace Lee Boggs, a proud, salty community activist in Detroit, who embarked on an interracial marriage in the 1940’s, and who was 88 when interviewed for the film and still going strong.
Although “The Grace Lee Project” is ostensibly about a name, it’s really about cultural assimilation and a stereotype of virtue and subservience that has deep roots on both sides of the Pacific. As oppressive as her name may be, Ms. Lee also knows full well that there are worse fates than being a 16-year-old Harvard freshman.
Filmmaker Grace Lee will be holding a Q&A after the 8 PM screening on Friday, December 16th. More info, reviews, and a downloadable trailer at http://www.gracelee.net/