Review: ‘The Exiles’ (2022), starring Christine Choy, Yan Jiaqi, Wu’er Kaixi and Wan Runnan

January 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

A 1989 photo of Yan Jiaqi (second from left), Wu’er Kaixi and Wan Runnan in “The Exiles” (Photo by Christine Choy/Film News Now Foundation/Gravitas Ventures)

“The Exiles” (2022)

Directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1989 and 2015 to 2019, in various parts of the world, the documentary film “The Exiles” features a group of Asian people (and a few white people and African Americans) discussing filmmaker Christine Choy’s documenting the lives of three leaders of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement who fled China in 1989, to lives as refugees in the United States.

Culture Clash: Choy experienced many obstacles in finishing the film and in getting the three exiles to reunite in the 2010s. 

Culture Audience: “The Exiles” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about movers and shakers in 20th century Chinese history.

Christine Choy in “The Exiles” (Photo courtesy of Exiles Film LLC/Gravitas Ventures)

In 1989, when Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christine Choy began making a documentary about three exiled leaders of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy uprising, she had no idea that nearly 30 years later, she would be the subject of a documentary about Choy finding out what happened to three exiles and trying to possibly reunite with them. The result is the riveting but somewhat uneven documentary “The Exiles.” At first, the documentary looks more like a biography about Choy than about the exiles. But the film gets better as it goes along and is a fascinating story of personal sacrifices for political beliefs.

“The Exiles” is the feature-film debut of directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein, who are both 2016 graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Choy is a film studies professor. Columbus and Klein got the idea to do the documentary because Choy was their professor and told them about the unfinished documentary that she made about Chinese exiles Yan Jiaqi, Wu’er Kaixi and Wan Runnan, who were considered the masterminds of the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy in 1989. The protests (which lasted from April 15 to June 4, 1989) tragically ended in a government massacre of an unconfirmed number of people believed to range from several hundred to several thousand.

Choy couldn’t finish her documentary about the exiles because she ran out of funding. However, she kept the footage and later digitized it. Much of that footage is used in “The Exiles.” In the production notes for “The Exiles,” Columbus and Klein comment in a joint statement: “It was our [Columbus and Klein’s] idea to track down the exiles. After seeing Christine’s original 1989 material, we thought Christine reuniting with these men after 30 years would be a good way to provide the narrative framework for revisiting the footage.” “The Exiles” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary.

The movie opens with Choy (a chainsmoker who has an outspoken and feisty personality) telling her life story in the way that’s sometimes abrasive and challenging. In an interview segment, she snaps at the filmmakers when asked how to describe herself: “How do I describe myself? Fuck you! You can describe me.”

She also says, “I live in America: the United States of a Beast. I am a thinker, but not a conventional thinker. I am a filmmaker, but not a conventional filmmaker. I am a professor, but definitely not a conventional professor. Thank God!”

Born in 1952 to a Chinese mother and a Korean father, Choy (whose birth name is Chai Ming Huei) spent her childhood living in her birth city of Shanghai, China, as well as in Hong Kong and South Korea. She moved to the United States in 1965, when she became a student at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York City. She’s been a New Yorker ever since. Choy, who was trained as an architect, received her master of science degree from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. She has also has a directing certificate from the American Film Institute.

Oscar-nominated “Joker” filmmaker Todd Phillips appears briefly near the beginning of “The Exiles,” to comment on his memories of having Choy as his film school professor at NYU: “She had a huge influence on me in my life.” (Choy amusingly appears in the background to breifly interrupt his interview.) Phillips also talks about one of the ways that Choy was different from most other NYU professors: “She smoked and drank vodka in class.”

Arlo Smith of the Black Panther Party says that Choy became a member of the Black Panthers because she provided all the films for the party for free. Smith adds, “She has Marxist/Leninist ways, but she’s a queen. She’s a diva.”

Actor/producer Jodi Long comments on Choy: “I would describe Christine Choy as a loudmouth, skinny, combative, very Chinese.” Long adds that Choy’s activism “is an important part of [Choy], and it’s an important part of the Asian American community. Her filmmaking style is very much like she is. It’s very confrontational. She really looks for injustice and how do we change that or expose that so maybe something can change.”

“The Exiles” also mentions the 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” which Choy co-directed with Renee Tajima-Peña. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Choy talks briefly about her memories of attending the 1989 Academy Awards, where she says “There were a lot of Asian journalists because I was one of the few [Asians] who ever got nominated.” She also there was “no money and no PR” for the movie’s awards campaign. Choy states matter-of-factly: “Awards don’t satisfy me.”

As far as Choy is concerned, something much more important happened to her in 1989 than an Oscar nomination: She got involved in making the documentary about Yan, Wu’er and Wan. “The Exiles” then segues into chronicling how Choy went from being assigned to cover the New York City press conference held by the three exiles (who initially fled to the United States) to doing an entire documentary about them.

Choy says in “The Exiles” that she vividly remembers her reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre: “I was shocked.” She also says that she was able to develop a rapport with Yan, Wu’er and Wan because of their shared Chinese heritage and because she knew how to speak Mandarin, which is a skill that most reporters in American mainstream media do not have. Later in the documentary, Choy says that she still considers herself to be a patriot to China: “The reason why I want to make this film is love of China.”

“The Exiles” becomes much more interesting when it doesn’t look so much like “The Christine Choy Showcase,” and the documentary gives viewers a better sense of three exiles who are the namesakes for the movie. It’s easy to see why these three exiles are fascinating enough to make an entire dcumentary about them. All three of them come from different backgrounds but shared a common cause to try to change China into a democracy.

In 1989, before they fled China for their lives and sought sanctuary in the United States, Yan was a director of political science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Wu’er was a student at Beijing Normal University. Wan was CEO of Sitong Corporation in Beijing. The footage of them from 1989 shows them to be resolute in their beliefs but reeling from shock (that hasn’t quite sunk in) that they can’t return to China to see their loved ones.

It would be giving away too much information in this review to reveal what Choy and “The Exiles” discovered about what happened to the three exiles after the exiles faded from the public eye. However, it’s enough to say that all of them are in the documentary, where they are interviewed by Choy. Wu’er was filmed in 2017, Ya was filmed in 2018, and Wan was filmed in 2019. All three of the exiles live in different countries.

Wu’er, the youngest of the three exiles, shares his memories of their lives as exiles in 1989: “We were in a traumatized state, I think it’s fair to say. He also expresses guilt that his parents “cannot travel outside of China because of me. I want to see my parents.”

As for why he got involved in democracy activism, Wu’er says: “We wanted a dialogue in 1989. That’s all we wanted.” He also says, “If I had known these would be the consequences, would I do it again? I don’t know.”

Yan, who considers himself to be the historian of the trio, was the one who originally suggested to Choy that she do a documentary about them. He says in “The Exiles” documentary: “I’ve been keeping a diary since June 4, 1989.” Of the three exiles, Yan is the most candid with his thoughts about China’s past, present and future.

Yan comments, “In my opinion, while China’s economy hasn’t stopped growing over the past 30 years, its politics hasn’t stopped going backwards.” He later adds, “I still have hope [that] China is going to change completely.” Yan also opens up about the pain of being separated from his son, whom he was forced to leave behind in China. (The movie mentions if Yan ever reunited with his son.)

Looking back on 1989, Yan says, “I was full of confidence back then. I still have confidence now, but the feeling is different. Back then, I was joyful. I felt that China was going to change in a few years. Now, I feel very disasppointed.” He adds, “I hope to step on Chinese ground again … I still see myself as a Chinese person, as an exile from China.”

Out of the three exiles, Wan appears to be the most contented with his current life, where he spends his leisure time gardening and reading poetry. He’s also talks about his experience as a successful businessman gave him the privlege to fly around the world. Wan says of his life: “I don’t regret anything.”

Yan says he still keeps in touch with Wu’er and Wan. But did these three exiles ever reunite years after they went their separate ways? “The Exiles” has that answer, but some viewers might already know the answer before seeing the movie. Choy’s individual reunions with them are poignant and meaningful.

Other people interviewed in “The Exiles” include Ronald Gray (who was Choy’s sound mixer/editor in 1989) and former San Francisco Examiner reporter Steven Chin. “The Exiles” is thankfully not overstuffed with too many talking heads. However, the movie could have used more insight and perspectives into the search for the three exiles instead of spending too much time in the first third of the movie by looking as if it’s a biography of Choy.

“The Exiles” is a movie about Choy’s quest to find the three exiles, but it’s also a movie about the exiles’ stories too. “The Exiles” could have used tighter editing to blend these two narratives together. However, the movie makes good use of the archival footage and the footage filmed exclusively for “The Exiles.” Most of all, “The Exiles” succeeds in showing how Choy’s persistence and the three exiles’ resilience are at the heart of why “The Exiles” is an inspirational movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Exiles” in San Francisco on December 9, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on January 10, 2023.

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