American critics and audiences began appreciating Asian cinema in the last decade. Whether this is because of increased access to the global market or decades of cinephiles finally becoming the majority remains unclear. However, Asian-American filmmakers could barely scratch out a living as independent filmmakers. One of America’s most critical underground filmmakers was Christine Choy, a woman who spent decades making subversive films. Her political films gained success within progressive enclaves but rarely broke through in the mainstream. Choy filmed considerable footage in 1989 when leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests fled to America for their safety. Decades after her footage was abandoned, she teams up with Violet Columbus and Ben Klein. The three complete The Exiles and follow up with her original subjects.
The Exiles begins as a retrospective of director Christine Choy. The director began making films in the 1970s, often with a subversive lens Choy’s nontraditional storytelling and socially conscious films have been influential within the world of documentary. During the 1980s, she was one of the few Asian-American filmmakers with consistent output, earning an Oscar nomination for Who Killed Vincent Chin? in early 1989. Later that year, when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, a group of refugees came to America and asked her to document their trip. Decades later, she looks for the refugees to finish her film.
Much like Choy’s career, The Exiles takes a non-traditional path to tell its story. The filmmakers juxtapose Choy’s footage with her brash narration. While much of Choy’s footage remains intact, Columbus and Klein choose to include non-traditional storytelling approaches. The Exiles pulls in animation, a 1:19:1 aspect ratio, and “film stock” shots that loop duplicate footage at three places within the same frame. The home video style helps create a visually distinct feeling while also reminding us of the story’s personal stakes.
Choy’s visits with the three men results in genuinely emotional footage. Wu’er Kaixi refuses to stay silent. He lives in Taiwan and testifies in front of Congress. He questions whether his efforts were worth the sacrifice and struggles with the guilt of leaving China in the first place. Yan Jiaqi has kept decades of diaries and remains in America with his wife and family. There’s an ache in his voice as he explains that he does not see himself as a Chinese citizen. Wan Runnan lives in Paris, away from the rest of the world. He gardens and stays at home in a seemingly meditative state. Runnan has found peace in his life.
Combining the original footage with the new interviews creates a story that wanders, but this rumination feels essential. The events of June 4th are not clear to this day. Having the refugees watch their old interviews elicits laughs and heartache. Choy’s frustrations with American politics cannot be ignored. She sets up a juxtaposition of Americans in China during the Tiananmen massacre and footage showing annoyance with China rather than disgust. American political figures, including former President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger, repeat this dialogue. Questions about China’s power, and the world’s complacency in its rise, stick with the viewer.
The Exiles is an essential text for understanding political activism and how it changes a person. Each person documented, from Choy to Runnan, has evolved over time. In some ways, they’ve become more extreme in their political motivations. Some dissidents tried to find peace in life after years in the fight. The Exiles asks us to imagine the toll of what our activism means for society and how to use the power of activism to shape the future. While the unconventional storytelling of The Exiles may distract some from the broader points of the documentary, it stands out for the dialogue it inspires.