“How would I describe myself? Fuck you. You can describe me.” Fair enough: An Oscar-losing director of 1988’s essential documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” before she became a NYU professor famous for drinking vodka on the rocks during class, Shanghai-born filmmaker Christine Choy is a character so incandescent that she’s every bit as powerful in front of the camera as she is behind it — a fact that Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s “The Exiles” seizes upon from the moment it starts.
The 70-year-old Choy isn’t the subject of their film so much as she’s the lens through which it looks back at yesterday and the fire that kindles its hope for a brighter tomorrow, but her inextinguishable spirit can be felt burning away behind every scene. Not allowing history to get too comfortable. Rubbing a lit cigarette into our collective political blind spots. Combining the revolutionary zeal of a teenage Marxist with the diva-like magnetism of Mariah Carey. Former student Todd Phillips is one of the first talking heads we meet in the movie, and he’s so overpowered by the bull-in-a-china-shop energy with which Choy ricochets around her apartment during the interview that all he can do is watch in wonder and chuckle that she’s “crazy.” This is coming from the guy who made “Joker.”
In other words, Choy is a lot. When she talks, you listen; when she gripes (about, for example, how the Academy was far too white to recognize the power of an Asian-American landmark like “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”), you take her at her word; when she starts something, you imagine that no force on Earth could keep her from finishing it. So when Choy says that she abandoned a 1989 documentary she was making about the exiled leaders of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement because she ran out of money, we assume there had to be more to it than that (her first rule of non-fiction filmmaking: “Lie to everyone”). Columbus and Klein must have suspected the same, though the directors’ unwillingness to be an active presence here makes it difficult to know why Choy was moved to revisit her old footage — one of several frustrating vagaries in a film so fiercely preoccupied with personal frames of reference.
Choy did run out of money, but the truth is that she only walked away from the project because she didn’t feel a close emotional connection with its subjects. For one thing, she had left China by choice more than two decades before the massacre, even though she continues to identify as Chinese and not Chinese-American. For another, Choy believed that the situation would resolve itself quickly; that an inevitable compromise between the CCP government and the protestors calling for democratic reform would allow the movement’s exiled leaders to return home. She never imagined that China’s emergent status as an economic powerhouse would cow the United States and other world leaders from demanding justice. More than 30 years later, all three of the men Choy began to profile in 1989 are still living in exile.
Naïveté is a recurring theme in “The Exiles,” which gradually coheres into a scattershot yet poignant microcosm of the clear and present dangers that result from denying people of their pasts. Dissident Yan Jiaqi — then one of the movement’s leading intellectuals, now a resident of Maryland whose garage contains thousands of unpublished political screeds — admits that he never thought the Chinese government would actually kill anyone in Tiananmen Square. Once the CEO of China’s largest technology firm, Wan Runnan believed that his birth country was eager to grow beyond the bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution; that conviction spurred him to help lead the protests despite being a public figure. Student firebrand Wu’er Kaixi can’t imagine where his younger self found the courage to angrily confront Premier Li Peng on live TV, though the undaunted freedom-fighter is now an outspoken political commentator in Taiwan, and regularly tries to break into Chinese embassies in the hope of being arrested and brought “home” so that he might be able to see his family.
Each of these men are compelling subjects, though “The Exiles” doesn’t always recognize that the 1989 footage is far more urgent when revisited through their eyes (from time to time the film also appears to forget that Choy is on hand as an intermediary). It can be extraordinary to look back at the First Congress of Chinese Students in the U.S. — to watch energized young dissidents from a communist country gather in a Chicago conference room and practice democracy in its purest form — but Columbus and Klein’s film is most affecting when it stops to interrogate the value of having that footage in the first place. Of being able to see the present through the prism of the past. A single jump-cut between now and then is powerful enough to express the sheer permanence of exile, a life sentence that seemed unfathomable to these men when they left China all those years ago.
Would they do it all over again if they knew the ostensible futility of their actions? If they had been able to anticipate the personal cost of collective protest? Regrets abound, to be sure. It’s sobering to hear Jiaqi reflect on his adolescent impetuousness from the perspective of an older man who still believes in the cause, but kicks himself for choosing it over his kid; Kaixi, meanwhile, is haunted by the guilt of a captain who didn’t go down with the ship.
At the same time, it’s also tremendously activating to hear their heartbroken resolve, and to recognize their enduring connection to a past that China’s government — along with shit-eating foreign allies like Henry Kissinger — have tried to erase from the history books. These men have spent decades confronting what it means to belong to a place (Kaixi describes himself as “Uyghur by blood, Chinese by birth, Taiwanese by choice”), and their shared memory of where they came from is all that holds the people who forced them out of it to remain accountable.
“The Exiles” is most arresting at its angriest, and it’s never angrier than when Kaixi addresses the U.S. Congress and pleads with our government to recognize America’s complicity in China’s gross violations of human rights. Had America supported Chinese Democracy in 1989, Kaixi insists, Xi Jinping’s authoritarian government might not be in power. The Uyghur genocide might have been averted. He might have been able to go back to the place he still considers home. The Tiananmen Square protests were the last best hope for a free China, and the need to remember that is as vital in 2022 as the need to protest was in 1989. “When you have no past,” someone says, “how do you move forward?”
Choy’s inflammatory charm (in addition to her inestimable contributions to Asian-American cinema) make her a natural asset to “The Exiles,” but it’s hard not to feel as if this documentary limits itself by using her as more of a host than a catalyst. Choy herself is not technically an exile — a status she exploits during a trip to China in which she interviews young students and laments how little they know about Tiananmen Square — but few people are better avatars for the power of self-expression or the intricacies of hybridized identity (“How the fuck am I gonna explain to anyone where I’m from! It’s so complicated! I’m philosophically homeless!”). She carries the lessons of Tiananmen Square even if she wasn’t there to learn them first-hand, and more urgently recognizes the need to call out authoritarianism than anyone in the mainstream media.
And yet, for all that she does to bring Jiaqi, Kaixi, and Runnan back together, Choy’s own perspective on the past that she’s dedicated her life towards documenting remains curiously unexamined. It’s reduced to a pat “live for the future” sound bite that seems at odds with the arduous digging it takes to get there. Her view of this experience may not initially be as relevant as that of Columbus and Klein’s other subjects, but — as Choy mentions offhandedly towards the end — this film may soon turn her into an exile herself.
“The Exiles” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.