‘The Exiles’ Looks Back Thoughtfully at the Dissidents Who Fled Tiananmen Square

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Grainy image of older Asian woman in hat and sunglasses with semitruck behind her
Filmmaker Christine Choy in Violet Columbus and Ben Klein's 'The Exiles.' (Courtesy the Roxie Theater)

Mark Rudd, the 1960s activist, remains one of the most haunted, and haunting, figures I’ve ever encountered on a movie screen.

One of the protagonists of then-San Francisco filmmaker Sam Green’s 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground, Rudd confesses — in the middle of a lonely, windswept hike/interview — his profound regret at embracing violence, and his unmitigated sadness at the failure of the student antiwar movement to change American society.

Wu’er Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi and Wan Runnan, the subjects of Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’ valuable documentary The Exiles, may have a similar effect on you. The three men were important figures — student leader, professor and writer, and high-tech executive, respectively — in the peaceful pro-democracy movement that swept China in the late 1980s. After the army massacred hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Wu’er, Yan and Wan were compelled to flee, winding up in New York City.

That was where Chinese and Korean American documentary filmmaker Christine Choy met them. She was hardly the only person with a camera to attend their press conferences, notably public outdoor affairs with the Statue of Liberty in the background. But based on the vintage footage that comprises the idealistic heart of The Exiles (opening Dec. 9 at the Roxie for a week), Choy shot the most eloquent individual interviews, along with a relaxed, candid group sit-down.

A group of unsmiling Asian men and women in suits, image from film cell with rounded corners
A still from 'The Exiles,' 2022. (Courtesy the Roxie Theater)

That long-ago nighttime chat session featured plenty of Tsingtao, but the participants were mostly intoxicated on their no-longer-illicit freedom to speak. They were (naively) convinced, like revolutionary predecessors in the U.S. and elsewhere, that their country’s path to democracy was unstoppable. And that, naturally, it would just be a matter of time before they could return to their beloved home.

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Choy never finished the film that those interviews were intended for, but Klein and Columbus (whose filmmaker father, Chris, is one of The Exiles’ executive producers) make excellent use of them. They also enlist Choy — who needed absolutely no persuasion, I’m guessing — to reconnect with Wu’er, Yan and Wan and talk about 1989 and now.

Thoughtful and committed, the three Chinese activists revisit their dreams, recount their sacrifices and ruminate on China’s leaders and future. Viewers with a personal connection to China and/or an abiding interest in the country, heightened by the recent wave of protests across the country — which prompted the government just this week to relax its harsh zero-Covid measures — will relish the conversations about Chinese politics and China’s future.

I was most touched, however, by the high cost of their conviction. Forced to make new lives in Taiwan, Maryland and Paris, none of the activists has been able to set foot in China in the ensuing 33 years. The charismatic Wu’er (the youngest of the three men) remains active in expat politics; his recent testimony to a House committee is refreshingly direct and uncompromising. Yan unhappily notes that although his tireless writings over the years have found audiences in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has no visibility and no influence in China. Wan, the oldest, tends to his garden and dispenses witticisms.

Older Asian woman holding a ciragrette, looking directly at camera with only face lit
Christine Choy in 'The Exiles.' (Courtesy the Roxie Theater)

The Exiles, which premiered at Sundance in January and screened locally at the SFFILM Festival in the spring, isn’t entirely a mid-life melancholia of dashed ideals and smashed optimism, of disillusionment and compromise. The filmmakers don’t just employ Choy — their former NYU film professor and mentor — as narrator and tour guide, but devote chunks of the film to a quasi-profile of the pioneering director of Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1989) and other barbed documentaries. (Curator Gina Basso presents a selection of Choy’s docs at the Roxie on opening weekend, coinciding with Choy, Columbus and Klein’s appearances with The Exiles.)

The caustic, acerbic, chain-smoking Choy makes a definite and distinct contribution to The Exiles: Her sharp-elbowed, lower Manhattan, not-a-second-to-waste vibe energizes and “brightens” the film, although your tolerance for her bracing blend of provocations and principles (with more than a dash of bitterness) may be tested.

Mark Rudd mellowed as he aged; Christine Choy assuredly hasn’t. So Rudd might recognize himself more (albeit without the regrettable endorsement of violence) in Wu’er and Yan, still fighting the good fight and hoping the next generation will succeed where they did not. It’s not much consolation, but it’s something.

‘The Exiles’ opens Friday, Dec. 9 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, with in-person appearances by Christine Choy, Violet Columbus and Ben Klein at two screenings, Dec. 9 at 6:50 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 3:30 p.m. Tickets and more info here.