THE GRACE LEE PROJECTNR
In The Grace Lee Project, a Korean-American director takes dead-on, sometimes satirical, sometimes moving aim at stereotypes of Asian women, all of which seem personified by her own all-too-common name. "Grace Lee" immediately evokes, for those many people who have known someone who goes by that moniker in different cities around the world, the image of an intelligent, quiet, classical-music-playing, oh-so-nice and perhaps nerdy and oh-so-unmemorable Asian female. In her spunky, smart documentary, filmmaker Grace Lee goes on a journey to discover the various women who have been saddled with this commonest of names.
Herself anything but a model member of the "model minority," Lee, an aspiring, struggling communicative artist, instinctively rejects the idea of Asian women being these perfect paragons of brains, upright citizenship and impeccable behavior. She sets up a webpage requesting contact from all the Grace Lees in the world and is inundated with responses.
Taking her camera, she meets up with an assortment of characters, who are at first dismayingly similar and true to the stereotype she so dreads. There are any number of high-achieving success stories, from a 14-year-old living in Silicon Valley who (naturally) plays classical piano to a newscaster in Hawaii who seems to have it all together. (When it is discovered, however, that the teenager is in the habit of making voodoo dolls of people she hates and draws violent sketches to exorcise her own anger, it is as if the filmmaker had struck gold in what seems a Stepford Wife world of Grace Lees.)
Thankfully, other, more individual and fascinating Graces emerge. There's the inspiringly staunch 88-year-old political activist who has been involved with the black civil-rights movement since the 1940s, bent on engaging urban youth in a rebuilding of her native Detroit. There's even a militant lesbian, living in repressive Seoul, Korea, who, unfortunately, reneges on her agreement to be in the film, due to familiar disapproving familial pressures.
The filmmaker discovers that the worldwide popularity of the name Grace, especially among immigrants, stems from its associations with godliness and goodliness. But, ironically, there's also that most un-Asian of movie stars, Grace Kelly, whose patrician, perfect WASP beauty and royal marriage represent everything which should be aspired to.
Along the way, Lee discovers certain truths about herself and her own judgmental nature. These come especially to the fore in her encounters with two women-one very young, and the other a pastor's wife and mother-who are devout Christians. The agnostic director must come to terms with her own marginalizing of such people, but perhaps the most powerful story stems from a deaf woman, who, as an immigrant child adopted by a Jewish family, suffered severe physical abuse. Her experience has led her to provide succor and shelter for a female friend with a violently threatening husband, and her daughters, despite the problems presented to her own teenage son, struggling with his own identity.