‘The Exiles’ Review: Tiananmen Square’s Legacy Intersects with a Filmmaker’s Life in an Eccentric, At Times Essential Doc

Filmmaker Christine Choy revisits unused footage of three protest leaders coming to the U.S., and revisits the men themselves, 30 years later.

'The Exiles' Review: Engaging, Eccentric Doc on the Tiananmen Legacy
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Given the Chinese government’s frighteningly successful attempts at retroactively erasing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from history, there is an urgent need for a soup-to-nuts retelling of that incident, solidly laying out the facts and figures, insofar as they can be known. “The Exiles,” from debut directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein, is not that film, although some of its most powerful sequences could be repurposed in their entirety to that end.

Instead, Columbus and Klein present a palimpsest of erratically overlapping perspectives. The results are untidy and unbalanced, but derive considerable energy from that eccentric approach. While “The Exiles” honors three of the erstwhile leaders of the protest movement, and also probes some intriguingly melancholy ideas about exile and the passage of time, a significant portion of its hybrid vigor comes directly from the enormously outspoken, rather amazing Christine Choy, the filmmaker who becomes the framing device here.

Shanghai-born, half-Korean and now American, Choy is a self-confessed “loudmouth” whose 1987 doc “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” was Oscar-nominated after playing, like this film, at Sundance. She’s an NYU professor whose habit of smoking and swigging vodka through her lectures is recounted fondly by friend and former student Todd Phillips. When the massacre occurred, Choy was deployed to film the arrival of three of the protest’s most prominent leaders, who had fled to the U.S. in fear for their lives. For reasons the film never makes wholly clear, the footage she recorded at Battery Park (and later at a Long Island safe house) has been gathering dust ever since. Now, Columbus and Klein have assembled it and contextualized it with an archive deep-dive and newly shot interview segments, plus occasional paper-cut animations to fill in the gaps.

When the directors timidly ask Choy to describe herself, she cackles back, “Fuck you! You describe me.” And in a clip from Sundance in 2017, there she is again, at the women’s march she doesn’t believe will do much good, when the real solution to Trump would be, in her words, “Kill him! A woman sniper!” Using a personality this incandescently abrasive as a presenter is a dangerous gambit. Choy’s career was built on charisma, chutzpah and a passionate dedication to exposing social and especially racial injustice. (She became a Black Panther at one point, as verified by a slightly bemused chapter leader.) But entertaining as the film’s sections devoted to her are, they don’t overwhelming the real heroes. These three men, whom the film posits as a dissident triumvirate, are the tripartate beating heart of the film, with Choy as its chainsmoking, f-bomb-ing (loud)mouth.

Student leader Wu’er Kaixi, writer and political scientist Yan Jiaqi and CEO of now-defunct tech firm Sitong, Wan Runnan, contrast and complement each other: the firebrand, the intellectual and the businessman. In the vintage footage, presented with ragged edges and visible scratches, they are traumatized. They’d been peacefully agitating for “intellectual, not material demands” for concepts like freedom, democracy and human rights. That is why it was so shocking when very non-conceptual bullets lodged in very non-conceptual bodies: Images of protesters, shaking and bloodied in the immediate aftermath, are among the film’s most galvanizing. But the three were also extraordinarily articulate and, despite everything, optimistic that real political change was imminent. At the very least, they believed their enforced separation from family, friends, lives and careers would only be temporary.

That makes the recent interviews all the more poignant. On the pretext of showing them this old footage for the first time, Choy visits each man three decades later: Wu’er Kaixi lives in Taiwan, where he’s a well-known political commentator; Yan Jiaqi lives in Maryland amongst his books and the meticulous diaries he has kept since 1989; Wan Runnan lives in Paris where he keeps chickens and grows vegetables in a verdant garden. None has ever been able to go back to the country they still, after all these years, call home.

That the film ends back with Choy again feels like a miscalculation, given that the real mic-drop moment is the reunion of the three men at the 30-year memorial of the massacre, when they addressed Congress. After various politicians have their rhetorical moment condemning the atrocity, Wu’er Kaixi delivers his speech, an unmistakable broadside on the hypocrisy of America’s China policy in the intervening years: “If you don’t stand with Tank Man, you stand with the tanks,” he concludes. There’s weariness and rage in the words, but it’s stirring to witness the truth-to-power eloquence that still animates him. It’s the strongest aspect of the scattered but fascinating “The Exiles,” which is best summed up by another comrade, Chen Yizi — who died in exile in Los Angeles, but who shares, in that precious old footage, an adage that applies as much to Choy’s combative, forthright filmmaking approach as to the pursuit of justice after idealism has given way to disillusion. “Give up the fantasy,” he says. “Keep up the fight.”

‘The Exiles’ Review: Tiananmen Square’s Legacy Intersects with a Filmmaker’s Life in an Eccentric, At Times Essential Doc

Reviewed online, Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition), Jan. 23, 2022. Running time: 96 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An Exiles Film production. (World Sales: WME and Endeavor Content, Los Angeles.) Producers: Ben Klein, Violet Columbus, Maria Chiu. Executive producers: Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus, Steven Soderbergh.
  • Crew: Directors: Ben Klein, Violet Columbus. Camera: Connor K. Smith, Alexander J. Hufschmid, Ben Klein, Kevin Mathein. Editors: Connor K. Smith, Colton Fordyce. Music: Onyx Collective.
  • With: Christine Choy, Wu’er Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi, Wan Runnan.