Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 07, 2022 1:34 pm 
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Lopsided but stimulating film about Tiananmen, three exiled survivors, and a feisty Chinese-American filmmaker

The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath is a huge subject. What China did, and the course it stayed on, undeterred by a silent US government focused more on trade than rights, has changed the world. As Jessica Kiang says in her Variety review, the survivors of that event deserve a documentary, but this debut by Columbus and Klein is not that film. The reason is their own limitations - and Christine Choy, whose presence here is central, but distracting in The Exiles.

Choy, born in Shanghai, half Korean, raised in New York, is a feisty, chain-smoking, hard-drinking doc maker and film school lecturer at Tisch and elsewhere, is the essential catalyst and pivot point for this film focused on three 1989 Chinese revolt leaders who had to flee for their lives after the massacre and have never been back to China. Choy shot film of the three when they were briefly in New York together in 1989. They are student leader Wu’er Kaixi, writer and political scientist Yan Jiaqi and CEO of now-defunct tech firm Sitong, Wan Runnan. A handsome firebrand, an stern intellectual and a placid businessman, they contrast and complement each other and were united by their common belief that China had to change and their hope today that it till might.

Columbus and Klein were Christine Choy's students, years ago; so was the Joker director Todd Philipps, who appears here to reminisce about her classes, in which she smoked and quaffed vodka, and says he was much influenced by her. Here, we see some of that footage she shot of Wu'er Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi, and Wan Ruhnan back then, which, for no clear reason other than lack of money, was never used till now.

Choy revisits the unused footage of the three protest leaders coming to the U.S., where she and her cameraman covered them and they are still in shock and traumatized. And then, followed ty Columbus and Klein, Choy revisits the men themselves, 30 years later. Wu'er lives in Taiwan, where he is a respected media commentator; Yan is in Maryland, where he has done a lot of writing and keeps a voluminous film of it all; and Wan Runnan resides in Paris, with family, where he has a sort of urban farm, with chickens and vegetables. In each case it is a chance to ruminate about events and also about the life of an exile.

They are also seen reunited in DC to address the Congress at the thirty-year anniversary of the massacre, where Wu'er's speech, in his now fluent English, shows he is still a firebrand: he is brutally critical of the whole series of American presidents - Bush Senior, Clinton, Bush Junior, Obama, Biden, who have never criticized China for its human rights viiolations. In China, the Tiananmen Square massacre has been erased from the record: it was peaceful, nobody died, nobody was hurt. (Thousands may have died: there is no record, only living memories.)

These three men are interesting, each in his own way. Wan Runnan particularly so because he was one of the first successful Chinese corporate businessmen, and that he was essentially a capitalist, but saw no conflict between that and the passionate pursuit of democracy. His education had been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He thought that was over, and was active in the Chinese democracy movement - when Tiananmen Square brought that to a decisive end. Both in Choy's old 1989 footage and today, all three men ae wonderfully articulate - and hopeful.

In this documentary, Christine Choy, who was nominated early on for her documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), is given her head. She is fun. Her conversation is freely laced with "fuck" and "shit." At the outset the filmmakers ask her offscreen to describe herself and she - rightly - says "Fuck you! You describe me!" When Choy meets with the three exiles then and now, her showoff manner is tamped down and they take the spotlight. But she still skews attention away from them and history toward her ego and her story.

Early on Choy gets the attention, shown in a public interview related to a 2017 demonstration that the way to deal with Donald Trump would be "Kill him! A woman sniper." Jessica Kiang notes that using someone this "incandescently abrasive" as a "presenter" is "a dangerous gambit." The organization of this film, distracted by Choy and perhaps a still rudimentary sense of organization, leads to what Kiang calls "erratically overlapping perspectives." As she says, "The results" are "untidy and unbalanced," but we must admit that they do "derive considerable energy from that eccentric approach." It works, but it leaves one frustrated, forming in one's head as one watched the fuller, less skewed film that might have been.

The film ends with Choy, suggesting again that she, not the massacre or its noble survivor-exiles, is what matters here. But that can't be. History is more important than Choy. Nonetheless she has been invaluable, interviewing the subjects in both Chinese and English. (Wu'er as mentioned has become totally fluent in English; Wan Runnan, who has lived long in France, says he has never mastered it. Choy, though she decflares that her Chinese and English are both rough, moves easily back and forth between them, and shows much wisdom about life, despite the wild but stimulating remarks. There are also clips of the massacre and wounded victims that bring the transformative event to life thirty-plus years later.

The best solution would have been a mini-series. Providing a section for the massacre, for each of the exiles, and for Choy, would have kept perspective on the main people and events without eclipsing her, or them. Not that anyone is eclipsed here. It's just that as Kiang says, it feels like a "palimpsest." But as Kiang says, on the money again, the real "mike-drop would not have been something about Christine Choy, whose face is the last thing we see, but Wu'er's resounding address to Congress. That is where this film should have ended: finger-wagging at America for its responsibility for the undemocratic monolith China remains.

A personal note. I used to go to a video rental store every day where a tall, personable young Chinese American man presided and we had friendly exchanges. The shock, disbelief and sadness of this usually so very cheerful young man when I saw him on June 4 after the news of the massacre had come is still vivid and moving to me.

One clear reason why we've heard so little talk about this seminal event is our country's shocking silence about it. This is an important documentary despite its shortcomings. There need to be more.

The Exiles, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2023 winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, and was shown at a number of other festivals including San Francisco, Jeonju, Bergen, Monthreal , Philadelphia, Taipei and Amsterdam. It will be shown at Roxie Theater in San Francisco Dec. 9-15, 2022 along with a showing of Christine Choy's films, with the filmmakers and Choy in person Dec. 9-11.

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