“The Exiles” is a curious documentary. You think this documentary is going in one direction and then it takes a sharp turn and nothing the directors do ties both these themes together. Directed by Violet Columbus (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” 2004 and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” 2002) and Ben Klein (“Peace in the Nation,” 2017), the film begins with Oscar-nominated documentary maker Christine Choy,’s raspy voice and salty language.
“That’s the problem. How the f*ck am I going to explain to anyone where I’m from? It’s so complicated. Homeless. It’s philosophical homeless. Exile.” The camera introduces us to a figure on a carpet in front of a black backdrop. A clap board is in front of her face as the crew begins the shot. Then the camera goes in for a closeup. She speaks Mandarin Chinese and then translates for herself as the camera pulls back: “My name is Christine Choy. I’m a half and half, half Chinese, half Korean. I now live in America.”
Then we cut to scenes of New York City and Canal Street, a street which has Chinese characters on the sign. We see Choy on the street, lighting up a cigarette. In what appears to be an office, she again faces the camera. “How do I describe myself? F*ck you. You describe me.” Cutting to a VoiceOver, we get her elsewhere flipping the camera off and telling the audience, “I am a thinker,” with herself poised in front of a replica of Rodan’s statue. She qualifies that, “not a very conventional thinker.” At the Lincoln Center and then at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at the Lincoln Center, she’s again smoking, and she tells us she’s not a conventional filmmaker. She’s also not a conventional professor.
Todd Phillips (“Joker,” 2019 and “The Hangover” series) recalls taking her class, and remembers that she smoked in a classroom that had no windows, and she always has a drink with her. He later learned it was vodka on the rocks. According to Phillips, Choy said, “The first rule about documentary film, lie to everyone.”
Choy was born in Shanghai, China as Chai Ming Huel (최명혜) in 1952, during the Korean War Her father was Korean and her mother, Chinese. Her father returned to South Korea, but Choy stayed with her mother, eventually escaping to mainland China and making her way to New York where she studied architecture before becoming an editor at Newsreel.
Ronald Gray, who has worked as her sound mixer, also comes in to comment. He’s known her for a long time when she was making a documentary each year. Also lined up is Atno Smith of the Black Panther Party. He remembers her coming into the office and eventually becoming a member of the chapter “because she provided all the films for free.”
Actress Jodi Long (“Dash & Lily”) describes Choy as “a loudmouth” and “skinny” and “combative” and “very Chinese.” Another person says that to capture Choy’s essence, you must show the “whirlwind Tasmanian devil energy of Christine.” We’re also told, “she does have Marxist-Leninist ways, but she acts like a queen. She’s a diva.” Another person attests that her filmmaking style is like she is, “She’s very confrontational.” From the beginning, activism is important to her and she looks for injustice.
There’s a weird jump forward to 2017 (protest against Donald Trump at Sundance) and then back to 1989. On 29 March 1989, Choy attended the 61st Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium. The documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin” which Choy co-directed with Renee Tajima (now Tajima-Peña). The documentary “The Exiles” never shines a light on Tajima-Peña who is still actively making documentaries, including the five-part PBS docuseries “Asian Americans” which she produced. Tajima-Peña was born and raised in Los Angeles County (Pasadena).
In 1990, Choy and Tajima-Peña with Geof Bartz directed (Tajima-Peña wrote) “The Best Hotel on Skid Row,” a documentary about the Madison Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Choy recalls that she told Robert Redford that his festival was “white on white,’ that where were no people from minorities there, and then the next year she would come back as a juror. But is this true? She also recalls the 61st Academy Awards as “there were no black people at Oscars.” The directors then show clips of the disastrous Snow White opening number with references to what used to be Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now TCL Chinese Theatres). There’s even a clip of the presenters announcing the Best Documentary winner, “Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie – Marcel Ophuls.” That film has already won the FIPRESCI Award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.
Here Choy claims, “There were no Black people at Oscars.” She also explains, “There were no Asian members at the Oscars. I mean documentary branch, I think there were two so you can’t even lobby.”
Yet in 1994, directors Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders would win for the documentary feature “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.” In 1990, Steven Okazaki would win for his documentary short, “Days of Waiting,” about Estelle Ishigo, a White woman who followed her Nisei husband to Heart Mountain War Relocation Center. In 1997, a fictional short, “Visas and Virtue,” directed by Chris Tashima and Chris Donahue (also starring Tashima) won the Oscar.
Moreover, there were Black people at the 61st Academy Award Ceremony. If you watch the full footage of the Snow White opening number, the camera cuts to the audience and at one point shows Gregory Hines (7:47 in the video below). Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. presented the Oscar for Best Original Song. Edward James Almost was a co-presenter (with Max von Sydow) for Best Documentary Feature.
Black people were also represented by Blair Underwood, Savion Glover and Holly Robinson performed on “(I Wanna Be an) Oscar Winner.” Underwood and Robinson are featured at the beginning. (You might be charmed at a young pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey). Savion Glover dances toward the end. This was before “Jelly’s Last Jam” which bring Glover and Hines together (with Hines winning a Tony Award) on the Broadway stage, but after the film “Tap,” in which Hines, Davis and Glover were cast members, had premiered (10 February 1989).
The previous Oscars saw Denzel Washington nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “Cry Freedom” in which he played Steve Biko and Japanese composter, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Chinese composer Cong Su (with David Byrne) shared an Oscar for Best Original Score (“The Last Emperor”). The year after Choy’s documentary was nominated for an Oscar, Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Actor (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and Washington won Best Supporting Actor (“Glory”). Freeman with Jessica Tandy presented the award for Best Film Editing. Washington introduced the performance of the Best Original Song nominee “After All.” Part Syrian-American Paula Abdul presented the Oscar for Best Original Song with Dudley Moore. Danny Glover presented the film “Born on the Fourth of July” Best Picture segment. Diana Ross performed “Over the Rainbow.”
Did this documentary’s co-directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein not thoroughly investigate this claim? It seems unlikely they would have missed that Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. were listed as presenters. Did Choy miss the presentation by these two men? Did she miss or forget the performances of Black actors? In the documentary, Choy also noted that many of the actors were not seated in the auditorium during the ceremony because they were elsewhere–in the bathroom drinking or smoking. Considering Choy’s addictive personality, perhaps that’s where she was, missing much of the presentation and thus giving a skewed view of an event. And that makes one wonder: What else did Choy miss?
Yet this is where the documentary veers from Choy into the unfinished documentary feature, “The Exiles.” The June Fourth Incident, also known as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre left its leaders in precarious positions. Pro-democracy students and others went into hiding and those who were able, escaped to other countries. Three, Wu’er Kaixi, Yan Jiadi and Wan Runnan, found themselves in the United States.
In June when the protests occurred, Choy was in Los Angeles for HBO. Choy later filmed the three speaking at a democracy convention in Chicago for Chinese students, in Battery Park and a Long Island safe house. The footage never became a documentary; Choy said she ran out of money. She also felt disconnected from the protest. Like the three dissidents, Choy also thought the terms of the exile would be temporary. Thirty years later, the men remain in exile.
Wu’er Kaixi is a political commentator and unsuccessful political candidate in Taiwan. He poignantly comments, “Uyghur by blood, Chinese by birth, Taiwanese by choice.” Yet that’s not entirely true. As a supposedly wanted criminal, Wu’er Kaixi has tried to return to see his parents by having himself arrested in Macau and other places like Japan, only to be deported back to Taiwan.
Yan Jiaqi (嚴家其) stores history in his Maryland home–his diaries and philosophical essays, lamenting that he’s had no influence at all in China. Yan Jiaqi has had books translated from Chinese into English and published by the University of Hawaii Press:
- Turbulent Decade Co-authored with his wife, Gao Gao. (1996)
- Toward a Democratic China (1992)
- Yan Jiaqi and China’s Struggle For Democracy (1992)
Elsewhere Yan Jiaqi seems to have little faith in foreign powers.
Wan Runnan is in France, living a rural life with chickens and a farmer’s garden. Wan Runnan had been a success story before the massacre. He was behind China’s first high-profile tech company before he put his money into the democracy movement.
When these three men appear before U.S. Congress in 2019, they call upon the US government to recognize its complicity. If the US has supported Chinese democracy in 1989, how would history have been changed? More personally, Wu’er Kaixi asks would the current Uyghur genocide have been averted?
This echoes another past failure in China-US history that the documentary doesn’t examine. If the US had been less racist and had extended the same kind of consideration to China as it did to Europe post-World War II, would the CCP have come in to power? The recent documentary “The Six” is a reminder that the Chinese could not flee to the US. The Chinese survivors of the Titanic sinking in 1912 weren’t allowed to disembark in the US with the other survivors because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Likewise, the Chinese refugees could not flee to the US during World War I (1914-1918) nor during World War II (1939-1945). China was an allied power during both wars but roiled under the so-called unequal treaties, some with their supposed allies.
Wu’er Kaixi (吾爾開希·多萊特) has faced some criticism with some of his claims questioned.
The film does bring give some information about these three in what would ordinarily be the pre-credits epilogue:
Wu’er Kaixi remains an outspoken critic of the CCP’s religious persecution of Uyghur Muslims. He was recently named General Secretary of Taiwan’s Parliamentary Human Rights Commission.
Yan Jiadi eventually reunited with his son in America. He recently completed his memoir.
Wan Runnan’s company Sitong was raided by CCP officials following the Tianamen Square Massacre. Sitong was eventually disbanded.
The Chinese government continues to censor all mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The audience might feel cheated that it misses Yan Jiadi’s reunion with his son. The information about Wan Runnan seems outdated. That’s information from 30 years ago. After these titles are shown against a black screen, the film doesn’t end. There’s more.
The film then returns to Choy. Choy asks, “Who is going to document this issue? Journalists? You can write about it, but most Americans don’t read.” Choy then concludes, “Filmmaking is very important. It’s visual communication.” She adds, “Documentary is the true recording of history while it’s unfolding.” Yet don’t forget that Choy also told her students to always lie and another documentary at Sundance, “Free Chol Soo Lee” showed that importance of the written word, at least in 1978. Choy’s own “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” also records the power of journalism (e.g. Helen Zia). Of course, now we’re in the era of social media, a world once ruled by Facebook, but now taken over by the Chinese social media app TikTok, a topic addressed in another Sundance documentary, “TikTok Boom.”
Certainly, Choy’s preservation of 50 rolls of 60 mm for 30 years is an amazing find, a precious documentation of history. Choy chortles with delight, saying “revisiting all my old films, rediscover myself.” For her, “it’s greatest therapy; I don’t even have to pay a shrink.” A therapist might ask more probing questions.
A better documentary might have answered some of the questions raised. Choy or the unobtrusive directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein might have questioned Choy in instances where she made incorrect statements or somehow indicated what she said was untrue. Her unfortunate statements about the 61st Oscars provides fuel for #OscarsSoWhite, but as I have indicated, they were not true. Further, Choy wasn’t alone at the Oscars. There is no statement from her co-director, Tajima-Peña, another Asian American woman.
Renee Tajima-Pena is a professor of Asian American Studies and Director of the Center of EthnoCommunications and holder of the Alumni and Friends of Japanese American Ancestry Endowed Chair. She was a Guggenheim Fellow. Surely as the co-director of more than one of Choy’s documentaries, Tajima-Pena would have had some insight worth hearing.
Instead of giving us Todd Phillips who is not known for making documentaries, Violet Columbus and Ben Klein might have found a documentarian who took her class to comment and even, perhaps, addressed the wisdom of someone teaching while drinking. What is described isn’t wildness, but substance dependency.
While I admire having an Asian American woman, a self-proclaimed exile, who does not fit the US stereotype of an East Asian woman–pliant, subservient and quiet, Choy also fits the trope of the troubled and self-destructive artist.
Despite the problems I have outlined, “The Exiles” was awarded the US Grand Jury Prize for documentary. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.