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The Exiles (2022), Violet Columbus & Ben Klein [4/5] - HIFF

Updated: Nov 25

Documenting the Price of Dissent...

The energizing tightrope act at the heart of The Exiles (2022) is balancing Christine Choy’s delightfully sardonic humor and deadpan aphorisms with the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the displacement of its survivors from their homeland. Yet Violet Columbus and Ben Klein, former NYU film students of Choy herself, maintain such sharp comedic timing and moral seriousness (with the help of their editor Connor K. Smith) that the two forces in the film always feel harmonized and aligned.


Christine Choy, a larger than life filmmaker who’s been behind the camera since 1972, was born to be in front of it. Although presenting herself as a sarcastic cynic, someone who jests, “all the Chinese look alike” before interviewing a room of political exiles, it’s clear from her work investigating hate crimes, the prison system, and immigration that behind the ironic detachment there is an empathic and conscience-driven storyteller. She’s described in the film as a marxist Leninist queen, a diva, and even a Tasmanian devil with a confrontational filmmaking style. “Fuck you! You describe me,” she replies when the directors ask her to describe herself to the camera. But Choy's great strength in this film is her ability to unlock the past with her interviewees and draw from them a vision of China, one based in democratic ideals and moral fortitude.

The story centers on three dissidents — Wu’erkaixi, Yan Jiaqi, and Wan Runnan — who fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and scattered the globe to advocate for democratic reform in their homeland. Columbus and Klein cleverly jumps between two timelines, first showing Choy's archival footage of the dissidents arrival in Battery Park, Manhattan where they spoke to astonished Chinese-American on-lookers and later to modern day footage of Choy meeting up with each activist in their new home country. In a Q&A after the screening, Choy explained how the film and audio recordings had been sitting in temperature-controlled archives for years because she didn't have enough money to digitize it until she was helped out by her friend Ang Lee, legendary Taiwanese director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi. Now both the past and present come careening together, sculpting a portrait of the legacy of Chinese resistance to the Communist Party.


Wu’erkaixi, once the boyish darling of the 1989 student resistance, has grown into a hardened political commentator in Taiwan where he broadcasts about human rights and his Uyghur heritage. Kept from his family for now over 27 years, he lacks the same aspirational naïveté he once had about reforming China. Columbus and Klein include 2019 footage of him speaking at a congressional hearing where he argues America's ambivalence at the time snuffed out any chance of China's future democracy. "You let us down," Wu’erkaixi says to the committee.

"Instead of supporting the students and people on the streets, who were prepared to die in the cause of a nascent democracy movement in China; your leaders chose instead to engage with the Communist regime. You did so to protect your own interests and for commercial reasons. You led and the world inevitably followed." We are shown footage of American presidents like Bush Sr. and Clinton hosting CCP leaders and advocating for non-intervention in the democratic resistance. In an intimate restaurant in a Taiwanese alley, Wu’erkaixi tells Choy, "One thing I learned about democracy is that it’s very shortsighted." In her humorous abrasiveness, Choy calls the U.S. "chicken shit” for not putting more pressure on China at that time. Who knows how things could be different now?


The next portrait is of Yan Jiagi, once one of the leading intellectuals of the 1989 resistance, and now a thoughtful and sensitive keeper of diaries in his Maryland political science library. We're shown footage of him and other exiles swimming on the beach in Long Island, the same town incidentally where the film was screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF).

At night in Long Island, they sit around smoking cigarettes talking about the family they miss and what future political structure they wish to bring to their country. In the current timeline, Jiaga remarks to Choy that the smiling man he speaks with in the footage is now dead. These captured fleeting moments, like China itself now, evoke a longing for a past that could have produced a different future, a past that failed many people and fragmented them from the only world they had ever known.


But it wasn't just students and intellectuals who were displaced. The last dissident that Choy interviews is Wan Runnan, a computer software entrepreneur whose youth as an engineering student was disrupted by the 60s Cultural Revolution before he founded Stone Emerging Industries, a company he envisioned as the 80s Chinese counterpart to IBM.

Despite his wealth and security in the current system, Runnan spoke out in defense of the pro-democracy students in 1989 and became a fugitive. In the current timeline, Choy meets Runnan in his garden in Paris, where he explains that he sometimes wonders how his life would be different if he had stayed in China. Columbus and Klein's cinematographer, Alexander J. Hufschmid, capture sparkling late afternoon shots of Runnan's chickens scurrying through his vegetable patch. His life looks idyllic and green here, but we're reminded of the sacrifice Runnan took to speak up for his beliefs. None of the three exiles have ever returned home since 1989.


Footage of the real Tiananmen Square Massacre hangs over the documentary like a specter. We're shown the iconic shot of "Tank Man," the protestor standing defiantly in front of the Type 59 tank in Beijing and of students shouting with picket signs that read "end dictatorship" before authorities open fire on the crowd of unarmed students. As a professor at NYU, Christine Choy said she is shocked that many students, even Chinese students, don't know about the June 4th massacre that took place.

"When you don’t have any past left, how do you move forward?” Choy asks the camera, taking a break from her usual funny act of cigarettes and vodka. She argues that the exiles — the student activist, the intellectual, and the tycoon — were more interested in intellectual demands than material demands. Each of them had a commitment to the free expression of their vision for democratic reform. Yet like Nanfu Wang and Zhang Jialing's powerfully disturbing doc One Child Nation, The Exiles shows that under authoritarianism, a moral conscience is rarely rewarded. The Exiles is one of my favorite films of the festival, the type of documentary that can inspire a new generation to take up the task of sorting through our diffuse and often tragic history with a sense of moral seriousness and an ability to make people smile and tell their stories, 4/5.


Miles Stephenson




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