Grace Lee’s film about women with her name is an odd combination of selflessness and ego. Grace Lee is, in a way, celebrating her ordinariness; but on the other hand, there’s nothing particularly modest about devoting an entire movie to your name.
“The Grace Lee Project” reminded me of the long-ago TV game-talk show (from a time when such things could have a certain class): “What’s My Line?” You could imagine their announcing “Grace Lee is a documentary filmmaker,” and then having four Asian women (or maybe three and a Caucasian) coming out and declaring: “My name is Grace Lee.” And: “MY name in Grace Lee.” And then: “MY name is Grace Lee.” And finally: “My NAME is Grace Lee.” And then the panel would ask them questions to guess who the real Grace Lee was. Only this time, they would all be Grace Lee. Because in certain pockets of the world, “Grace Lee” is as common as “John Smith” or “Bill Jones.”
Knowing her name to be common, as her voice-over relates, Grace Lee does research on the whole existing population of Grace Lees, hiring a private detective to access files showing how many of them there are and where (most are in California and New York). Then she realizes she can gather the information herself and she sets up a website called “The Grace Lee Project” and receives responses from Grace Lees all over the globe. She tracks some of them down, ones in the USA, and interviews them, investigating a few of the variations in type found among women named Grace Lee, and that is the bulk of the movie.
This sounds like a flimsy premise for a documentary, but Grace Lee’s point is to investigate Asian-American female stereotypes. Though she finds some unusual Grace Lee’s, the filmmaker starts her film with a series of sound-bites where people describe the Grace Lees they have known — and they all sound like the same person — namely, someone “nice,” “sweet,” “quiet,” “intelligent,” “cooperative” — passive but accomplished and able — so it turns out “Grace Lee” is almost a code word for the stereotypical young Asian-American woman. The filmmaker Grace Lee, the one the “What’s My Line” panel would have to spot, also discovers that there are some exceptional and interesting Grace Lees – a TV newsperson, an artistically gifted youngster who has done some terrifying drawings, an almost-ninety but very dynamic political activist of Chinese extraction in the black community of Detroit (Grace Lee Boggs) -– and even a girl, also Chinese-American, who tried to burn down a San Francisco high school. She is spoken well of too – just another quiet, studious, well-behaved Asian girl called Grace Lee – except that she set fire to her school. This pyromaniac Grace Lee could not be located for interviewing, but Ms. Lee spends most of her time on the unusual cases.
If, paradoxically, the project made sense only because the name was so common, ultimately the resulting movie seems an equally paradoxical mix of blandness and ego.
After all, what’s in a name? Couldn’t we all do films of people with our name? But wouldn’t the premise move beyond bland to outright meaningless then? What about John Smith? What about Muhammad? Few of our names are unique in the world. The Grace Lee Project is only as interesting as the women it encounters, and since naming is a rather random process, the encounters become only a study of variety and similarities among Asian-American (often Korean, but sometimes Chinese) women. If the point about Grace Lees is how similar they mostly are, why focus so much on the more unique ones? Could the answer be that there’s not much in a name? But then Grace Lee the filmmaker’s premise dissolves into nothing. Has she gone beyond the stereotypes, or only confirmed that in many cases they are valid? The film moves along with a breezy lightheartedness, but it doesn’t go very deep.
The almost-ninety Grace Lee seems the most interesting, and it’s not surprising that a key element in her vibrancy and power as a human being is that neither her name, nor her being Asian, nor even her being a woman, ever mattered much to her in the course of her long and productive life. This splendid and original Grace Lee who breaks all stereotypes and stands forth as a real and compelling person makes the filmmaker Grace Lee and her fascination with stereotypes and ordinariness seem somewhat on the small and unimaginative side. She has kept her exploration of the subject superficial. She’s interviewed a wide range of people, but most of them are ordinary, and not illustrative of anything we didn’t already know. Nothing earthshaking comes out of this. Maybe it’s a film that young Asian American women needed to see made. Thoreau said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Perhaps the mass of Grace Lees lead lives of quiet ordinariness. There’s nothing wrong with that. We can’t all be activists in Detroit.
“The Grace Lee Project’s” greatest virtue is that it makes you laugh — with, not at. The audience at Film Forum, where the documentary premiered, was predominantly made up of young Asian couples – it’s a New York City Asian-American date movie. But it’s hardly what you could call sexy. Like the stereotypical Asian-American young woman, it’s smart, quiet, and well behaved. Unfortunately it’s also a little dull, and as if to underline that, the music is singularly uninteresting. The woman in front of me was there because her friend had composed it and I felt for her. I wondered how many Grace Lees there were in the theater. Maybe none. Ordinariness isn’t as common as you may think. You have to seek it out — and then, like Grace Lee, you will probably move on from that and seek out the extraordinary, like everybody else.