SFFILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! If Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s The Exiles demands anything of its viewers, it’s these two things: never forget the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre and, for goodness sake, know who Christine Choy is. The documentary begins as it ends, with outspoken documentarian Christine Choy speaking to the camera. We learn of her early career and a chance assignment that led her to interview the four leaders of the pro-democracy movement as they arrived in New York City following the aforementioned massacre.
Following Choy’s success with her documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin in Los Angeles, she was sent to New York to meet up with and interview the four Chinese men who organized protests in China and then were forced to flee the country in exile. She’s half Chinese, half Korean, could speak Chinese, and soon she and her sound man were face-to-face with the political refugees. Over the summer of 1989, she interviewed the four men.
This was a big deal, but then it vanished, so nothing came of the footage. Choy produced more documentaries, then moved to New York City and began teaching filmmaking. But the footage and the legacies of four men who risked their lives for their ideologies nagged like unfinished ellipses. Oh, but don’t be fooled. This isn’t the morose film you think it is. The Exiles is a fascinating reflection of the directions we choose to take in life.
“…Choy finds and connects with the men who, all those years ago, attempted to change their world.”
One by one, Choy finds and connects with the men who, all those years ago, attempted to change their world. First to Taiwan, then to Maryland, and finally France. Trotting the globe with her footage Choy rekindles their memories in search of who these men are now. Even more poignant are the moments in which Choy interviews her subjects on how they view their past and whether or not it was a fight worth taking on. Their lives changed forever, they reflect on the courses they chose to take.
As China continues to erase the tumultuous chapter from its history, the world remembers. When asked, Choy laughingly admits that she probably will never be allowed to return to China after the release of this film. The iconoclast scoffs between puffs of cigarettes, saying, “When you don’t have a past, how can you move forward? You tell me.”
The Exiles is as much a biopic on the unbridled Christine Choy as it is a documentary on the four men in exile. Each subject passionately worked on something, only for it to vanish. Here we see how the years have sanded away the fiery passions of the men to a wistful reflection on a hopeful time. With Choy, though, well, she’s still very much the same, just a bit more weathered. I hope that she never changes.
"…each subject passionately worked on something..."