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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Don't mess with brilliant, spitfire director Christine Choy

Screen Grabs: Don’t mess with brilliant, spitfire director Christine Choy

From Tiananmen Square's dissident exiles to the roiling Mississippi Triangle, the driven filmmaker tackles deep subjects

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1989 was an eventful year around the globe, as it saw a domino effect of revolutionary protests that toppled numerous Communist regimes—nearly all of them, in fact. Those movements had in many cases started earlier, and some did not actually force significant government change until a bit later. Still, it was a remarkable moment in time… if one that the US took too much credit for, as if somehow American conservatives had somehow “won” the Cold War, rather than those nations’ citizens acting of their own free will (and at considerable risk) to overthrow oppressive systems.

But the same year also saw Tiananmen Square, in which equally optimistic student-led protests in favor of democratic reforms—particularly in the realm of free speech—gathered popular momentum, drawing about a million people to daily marches and rallies in central Beijing. (This was also echoed by concurrent activism in other Chinese cities.) Participants thought they were surely driving a turning point in national history.

But on June 4, their jubilance has crushed by gunfire and tanks. Even today, no one knows how many were massacred that day and the next. The government, whose forces were said to have hastily disposed of corpses as part of a general cover-up, still denies anyone died, while outside estimates of casualties run from the hundreds to the thousands.

Notorious as these events remain internationally, they officially never existed in China—the massacre and preceding protests have been entirely erased from any public record. Activists who survived and weren’t flung into prison had to flee, becoming permanent political exiles from the homeland they had hoped to help evolve towards a more open society. Instead, they’ve witnessed China become an ever-greater global power in economic terms, while it refuses to budge an inch on tolerance towards dissent.

Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s documentary The Exiles, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize this year and opens at the Roxie Fri/9, is largely about the experience of those political refugees, none of whom have been “home” for decades now. But it’s also a portrait of Christine Choy, the Shanghai-born US director whose cinematic focus on social justice issues stretches back nearly half a century. Over the weekend, the Roxie will also be hosting “Articulate Emotion: Documentaries by Christine Choy,” a short retrospective curated by Gina Basso of SFMOMA’s historically long-running, now-defunct Film Programs, and with the veteran filmmaker herself present for each screening.

In 1989 Choy was asked to document three high-profile dissidents—student leader Wu’er Kaixi, tech CEO Wan Runnan, political scientist Yan Jiaqi—who’d landed in NYC, immediately becoming spokespersons for a movement Beijing refused to acknowledge. (It did, however, eventually grant each of the men “Most Wanted” status for supposed anti-state crimes.) Dazed but dogged, they spoke to innumerable media outlets, Chinese-American groups, et al., still believing substantial change back home was inevitable.

But once she had shot about 50 16mm rolls, funding ran out, and the footage went unused. She also admits now “emotionally I didn’t have that close connection” to the issue, having been in the US since age 14, where her enthusiasms ran in different directions: She worked for the “hippie activist documentary collective” Third World Newsreel, joined the Black Panthers at one point, made films about women’s prisons, American racism, Namibia’s independence struggle, Skid Row life, et al. She also, like her exiled subjects in late ’89, assumed Tiananmen Square would “resolve itself” eventually in the progressive evolution desired.

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, the progress China made was toward an aggressive yet strictly controlled capitalism that made it more or less “too big to criticize” around the world—a status that has increasingly indicted nations like the US for failing to take a stronger stance 33 years ago. In letting China get away with murder because it had vast market potential, other countries unknowingly doomed themselves to a future in which China might eventually dictate everybody’s terms. We now stand by twiddling thumbs as it crushes dissent in Hong Kong, with Taiwan next in line.

So The Exiles sees Choy returning to the subjects of her unfinished project in the run-up to Tiananmen’s 30th anniversary. They have scattered (from Maryland to Paris to, yes, Taiwan), and for the most part live lives well out of the spotlight. But the wounds inflicted long ago remain acute, in terms of cultural dislocation and otherwise. China looms larger than ever on the world stage, and with fascism on the rise in many countries, it’s beginning to look less like 1989’s pro-democracy revolutions were the real wave of the future. Perhaps Tiananmen Square was the more accurate predictor.

If that’s a bleak diagnosis, it does not dominate The Exiles, which instead is very much dominated by Choy, At 70 or so, she remains a brash, chainsmoking, vodka-chugging “loudmouth” further described by herself and others (including former student Todd Phillips) as “a diva,” “combative,” with “Tasmanian Devil-type energy.” Asked to describe herself, she says “Fuck you. You describe me,” and when pressed about her “legacy,” shrugs “I’m gonna get cremated and flushed right down the toilet.”

She is a riot, with no regrets and an undiminished desire to keep looking forward. Making a movie about both this whirlwind personality and the quietly dignified mainland exiles ought to be oil-and-water. But somehow Columbus and Klein (who themselves will be present at Roxie screenings on the Fri/9 and Sat/10) make that combination work.

Before The Exiles raised her profile again, Choy was best known for 1987’s Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and recently restored upon its admittance to the National Film Registry. Co-directed by Renee Tajima-Pena, it examines the case of a young Chinese-American engineering technician who went to a suburban Detroit strip club with friends for a bachelor party two days before his planned wedding in 1982. After a dispute with two white men, he was jumped by them in the parking lot, and beaten on the head with a baseball bat. He never regained consciousness, dying four days later.

There was never any question of who, exactly, killed Vincent Chin. Yet, stupefyingly, the subsequent trial judge called it “not a brutal murder”—how else would you describe brains literally splattered by force onto the pavement?—giving former Chrysler employees Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz a grand sentence of three years probation for manslaughter.

The crime was widely acknowledged as an expression of anti-Asian sentiment then rampant in Detroit at the time, as Japanese imports were blamed for the auto industry’s layoffs… never mind that Chin was Chinese. In any case, Ebens denied any racist words or intent, despite substantial evidence (very little of it allowed in court) suggesting otherwise. His very practiced-looking denialism looks more and more fraudulent as the documentary goes on. Among commentators briefly seen here are Korean emigre Chol Soo Lee, the wrongfully murder-convicted San Franciscan whose own documentary portrait Free Chol Soo Lee also premiered at Sundance this year, and has played everywhere from the Roxie to PBS.

Other Choy films included in the Articulate Emotion retrospective include From Spikes to Spindles (1976), a Third World Newsreel production about community activism in NYC’s Chinatown; Mississippi Triangle (1984, co-directed with Worth Long and Allan Siegel), which examines the complicated relationships between distinct ethnic groups in the Delta region; and Home Apart: Korea (1991, co-directed with J.T. Takagi), a meditation on a divided nation that was the first US production granted permission to shoot in both North and South. For program, schedule and other info on the full series, go here. For The Exiles alone, go here.

There are also other documentaries also surfacing this week in area theaters. Providing some thematic overlap with The Exiles is Violet Du Feng’s Hidden Letters, which opens Fri/9 at the Lark in Larkspur. Its ostensible focus is “nushu,” a secret writing system used for centuries by women in the Hunan province to express frustrations and injustices they weren’t allowed to air publicly. But the film also amplifies how, despite all surface changes, much of modern Chinese society remains as patriarchal as ever.

Sisterhood is expressed very differently in Holly Morris’ Exposure, about a crowdfunded expedition to the North Pole undertaken by 11 women from Europe and the Arab world, most with little or no relevant experience. (Though we do get glimpses of the two years’ training they put in beforehand.) The goal is empowerment, both for the participants and for their larger communities.

I’ll admit I’ve gotten a bit over-saturated by mountaineering-type documentaries in recent years (there’s been a glut since Meru and Free Solo), and also have issues with such physically grueling yet privileged jaunts to fragile, deteriorating environs simply to prove “I can.” (In fact a postscript notes that the following year, all further expeditions in the region were canceled due to “volatile and shrinking sea ice.”) But if you want to see women skiing, and bonding, across the white-bright flatlands of “the harshest environment on the planet,” this “extreme adventure” may well be as inspiring for you as it means to be. It plays the Roxie once this Sat/10 (with Morris in person), then opens for a regular run there Fri/16.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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