Lives lost, opportunities wasted

    CHINA / Looking back in anger at the lost chances to help China attain democracy, 30 years after Tiananmen Square.

    Christine Choy is a great character. The Chinese-Korean-American radical filmmaker is usually behind the camera – with a wealth of formidable documentary titles stretching back to the 1960s in her extensive filmography.

    But in The Exiles – this engaging, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, and hard-talking woman is front of camera, weaving the story of what happened to three key characters from China’s nascent democracy movement – crushed by Beijing’s tanks in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

    Uncompromisingly loud and full of mercurial energy and wit, Choy documented the arrival in America of the student protest movement leaders who had escaped after the brutal crackdown in Beijing that left thousands dead.

    But dozens of cans of 16mm colour footage she and her soundman shot back in 1989 – as a group of exiled Chinese pro-democracy students, intellectuals, and proto-capitalists toured the US that year – were shelved after she ran out of money and moved onto other projects.

    «I lacked the emotional connection to the material,» Choy explains, drawing on yet another cigarette in this compelling documentary shot by Ben Klein, one of her old students from her teaching job as a professor at NYU in Manhattan.

    The Exiles, a film by Ben Klein, Violet Columbus
    The Exiles, a film by Ben Klein, Violet Columbus

    Raw and engaging

    Had she been in Tiananmen Square on the fateful night of June 3-4, when China’s Communist leadership sent in units of the People’s Militia and columns of tanks to brutally suppress a mass movement demanding democracy and free speech – she might have felt differently.

    But Choy had left China as a teenager. Although she watched the events of Tiananmen Square unfold on television along with millions around the world, she found it hard to connect with the young men and women who subsequently escaped and came to America to plead their cause and seek support for building on the foundations soaked in the martyred blood of the young protestors.

    The footage, raw and engaging, is presented complete with outtakes and sound checks. Formatted within a 1980s colour-graded style, it is immediate and spellbinding – both historic and old-fashioned and intensely now at the same time.

    Christine Choy is a great character.

    Passionate characters

    We see, hear and feel the passion in the speakers – three of whom Choy reconnects with in The Exiles to bring the story of their lives after Tiananmen Square up to date.

    There’s Wu’er Kaixi, an intense, slender man of 21, talking to the crowds of students in Beijing before the fatal assault in footage from one of the Western companies (such as CNN, then known as Cable News Network) that covered the protests.

    And here he is, exhausted and passionate, speaking to the press or students at the first even Chinese-American Student Congress after escaping.

    And today, living in Taiwan, politically active and lecturing, still passionate, still – as a dissident and member of the Muslim Uyghurs minority – not allowed to visit his now aged parents in Xinjiang.

    The intellectual force behind the protests, Yan Jiaqi, a politics professor who backed the students and later fled with his wife but left their son behind (subsequently re-united in America, we learn), talking earnestly about how democracy must come soon to China.

    And now – 1,300 essays published in Chinese (but not in China), writing his memoirs in exile in America with his wife – then a jet-black haired beauty who now describes herself as a «grey-haired old hag» – lamenting the extent to which Tiananmen Square has been forgotten in the world, and erased from history in China.

    Perhaps the most intriguing character Choy rediscovers in Wan Runnan, who in 1989 was the acceptable face of nascent Chinese capitalism, and headed a computer corporation that intended to become as big as IBM. He had personally supported the student democracy movement and also had to flee.

    Then he was a fresh-faced, rather naïve young businessman. Now retired and living in Paris after many years in New York, his life has been spent in Chinese exile communities; he never learned English. He has changed the most. He writes poetry, grows fruits and vegetables, and keeps chickens. A painting of his grandmother’s rural house hangs in his home, a reminder of his roots. He is the happiest of the three exiles Choy talks to; serene and wise.

    Frames of reference

    Perhaps, in a film that includes a wider frame of references to Choy’s filmography and political activism and resonates today as China’s neighbour Russia implodes in a war that has made exiles of millions of Ukrainians – and hundreds of thousands of Russia’s own brightest and best – it is this wisdom and enduring serenity that we may best take away from this fine and sensitive film.

    With executive producers that include Steven Soderbergh, The Exiles is certain to have a very healthy life both on the festival circuit and in exhibition. One to catch if you can.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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