By Randall Yip, Editor of AsAmNews
When Jennifer Takaki first moved to New York in 2002, she couldn’t help but notice this “quirky” Chinese-American man with a camera in his hand, palms wrapped around his lens and his eyes with silver glasses zoomed in on his photo subjects.
It was a scene repeated at every community event the director attended.
“So I immediately knew he was someone special and interesting, and I wanted to give a platform to a wider audience,” she told AsAmNews. She immediately decided to produce a five-minute vignette about the man introduced to her as Corky Lee. The short film would eventually turn into a 19-year passion project and the new full-length documentary Photographic Justice, the Corky Lee Story which is streaming via DOC NYC until November 27.
When Linda Hattendorf released her film Mirkikitami’s Catsthe story of a homeless Japanese American in New York who lost half his family in the Hiroshima bombing while the other half lived behind barbed wire in American incarceration camps, Lee stood in a corner taking his pictures.
A few weeks later, photos from the event would appear in her mailbox from a man she really didn’t know.
“I think that was my first impression of Corky here was an incredibly generous and dedicated person who not only showed up to the event, without my asking, but then sent me pictures for free afterwards “, Hattendorf told AsAmNews. “It was that kind of dedication to covering what he considered important. It really impressed me.
It was Corky, who documented events significant to the Chinese American community, but also Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Indian Americans, Pakistani Americans, Sri Lankan Americans, Hmong Americans, Thai Americans, Cambodian Americans, Burmese Americans, Filipino Americans, Malaysian Americans. , Hawaiians and other Asian-Pacific Americans, the New York Times wrote in 2002.
Takaki asked Hattendorf to join his project as an editor and she didn’t hesitate.
The two knew very little about Corky’s personal life. He is a largely private person, even to those who have known him for decades.
Linda Lew Woo first met Lee in 1968 while working as the editor of a bilingual newspaper in New York’s Chinatown. She says very few people knew much about Lee’s wife, Marge Dea, until her six-month battle with breast cancer in 2001.
“I think (their relationship) became more public when she was diagnosed,” Woo said. “And then he took time to help her. So that part, we haven’t seen for a while.
Woo would sign the film as producer.
Corky shared in the film that he mourned Marge’s passing in the darkroom and busied himself not to think about her tragic death.
Very little is known about Karen Zhou, Corky’s longtime partner. The two had a largely quiet relationship, although they were seen together at community events.
The film introduces Zhou and the depth of his feelings for Corky definitely comes out in this film.
We also see Corky’s relationship with her mother, Jung Shee Lee, a seamstress, and her two deceased brothers, during an intimate family moment at her mother’s apartment. We also hear from John Lee, Corky’s last surviving brother, who has made it his mission to carry on his brother’s legacy by posting a new book coming soon from Penguin.
“Nobody knew about his life,” Takaki said. “That’s why I spent so many hours with him interviewing him, is that nobody knew anything. He immediately showed who he was and his interest in the story. He showed how quirky, caring and passionate he is about his community. He was kind of doing it on his own, he was on his own mission.
Takaki recalls Lee suddenly falling ill with COVID just as her film was about to enter post-production. She had hoped to wrap up the movie and show Lee part of it. This does not happen.
Lee’s illness got worse. Takaki now had an end that no one had anticipated.
“I think it was very traumatic. The whole build up to his death,” Takaki recalls. “Yeah, that was a really tough time. I don’t think anyone expected him to die. It took time, but we knew the bigger picture had to continue. If Linda (Lew Woo) and Linda (Hattendorf) hadn’t been there to support and guide me, I think I would have been more lost. I definitely leaned on them.
DOC NYC audience voted Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story one of their five favorite films at the festival. You can get the latest news of upcoming screenings here.
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