Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s documentary feature The Exiles, a portrait of non-fiction filmmaker Christine Choy, won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on digital. Columbus and Klein both graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts In 2016 and now live in New York City. The Exiles is their debut feature film.
Much like her films, Christine Choy is a difficult subject to write about. Christine and her work are forces of nature – tornadoes of emotion that need to be felt and experienced for oneself. No collection of words could possibly do Christine justice, but here goes anyway …
In 2013, the two of us met in a film production class at New York University. That class changed the trajectory of our lives, as it was not only where we met each other, but where we met Christine.
Throughout her career, Christine Choy has mentored many filmmakers, with a long list of protégés that includes Todd Phillips, Raoul Peck and Brett Morgen. She is constantly drawing new young people into her kaleidoscopic world, pushing them to grow as artists and thinkers. She encouraged our budding passion for documentary filmmaking and welcomed us into her home for dinners, dancing and debates. We had never met anyone like her. Over the years, we started working together and Christine became a mentor, friend and collaborator to us both.
Christine likes to poke and prod, and her love can be tough. She will often say the thing that most are too shy to, purposefully exposing an insecurity or sore spot. But her unflinching honesty inspires others to speak with the same candor, and makes for a more interesting and dynamic form of communication. She slices through the bullshit like nobody you’ve ever met.
In 2016, we began making a film about Christine. At first, we thought the film would tell the story of her fascinating life and career, which began in Shanghai but found her traveling to America, alone, at the age of 14. Over the course of five years, though, the story expanded and began to focus on an unfinished project she had started in 1989.
Following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a group of Chinese dissidents and leaders fled to the United States. When they arrived, Christine and a small team began to document these men, following them from press conferences in Chicago to a small beach house in the Hamptons. Christine’s footage is remarkably intimate, capturing an inflection point for a resilient group of individuals who risked their lives and futures in the name of democracy. Labeled as enemies of the state, the dissidents spoke of their unwavering patriotism. They believed that eventually their movement would be successful, and they would be welcomed back to China as heroes.
Sadly, Christine’s project ran out of funding early on and was abandoned after only a handful of shoots. The footage was relegated to a storage locker and remained untouched for almost 30 years. As time passed, and China’s censorship became stricter and stricter, Christine felt a growing obligation to return to this material.
With the help of her good friend Ang Lee, Christine digitized the material in 2014. She tried offering the raw footage to various Chinese news outlets and archives, but was repeatedly rebuffed. Christine brought it to us in 2017, and we pitched her an idea: what if we were to follow her now as she reunited with these men and examined her own individual journey? Our film, The Exiles, returns to the past through Christine’s eyes and lens as she revisits a lost piece of personal and global history.
At the outset of this project, we took the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Christine’s filmography. We’d seen a number of her films before, but it was a joy to explore her expansive body of work in full, with subjects ranging from garment workers in Chinatown to refugee camps in Zambia. Throughout our entire production process, we would continually return to Christine’s films as a sort of template and source of inspiration.
Many people know Christine for her seminal collaboration with Renee Tajima-Peña, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, as well as other documentary classics like From Spikes to Spindles and Homes Apart: Korea. However, when we were asked to write about a film we love, we wanted to showcase an underappreciated Christine Choy gem: Ha Ha Shanghai.
Ha Ha Shanghai is an outlier in Christine’s oeuvre. Far more personal than most of her other films, this documentary is a family affair that features her mother and son as characters, and her daughter Ku-Ling Siegel behind the lens. Christine herself describes the film as a “documentary journal,” and while Ha Ha Shanghai begins as a personal history, it soon develops into a Kafkaesque farce.
In the film, Christine returns to Shanghai after 30 years to search for the title of a house built by her mother. She reconnects with friends of her family and a local choir teacher. She storms into government buildings with frenetic energy, demanding to see paperwork. When things seem dire, Christine visits a fortune teller and a palm reader, grasping at straws lost to time. Through anecdotes and recollections, she interrogates the modernization of China as well as the Cultural Revolution, the events of which caused the family home to be lost in the first place.
Christine uses unconventional editing and shooting styles to piece together this story. Various sections are shot in different formats, including 16mm and MiniDV. Threads are picked up and dropped with abandon. Watching the film feels like falling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole in hyperspeed. Although Ha Ha Shanghai is rooted in Christine’s personal experience, it tells a larger tale of how much China has changed since she left.
In many ways, Ha Ha Shanghai feels like a spiritual cousin to The Exiles. In both films, Christine is pushing the envelope of what is deemed appropriate or sensitive. She simply refuses to keep quiet on subjects most would rather avoid. When challenged by the threat of censorship, her response is an incisive “Screw you.”
Ha Ha Shanghai’s title refers to a funhouse mirror that warps and changes your reflection based on where you stand. Christine uses this as a metaphor for memory – history looks different depending on whose perspective you approach it from. She wonders if it is easier to “erase the past” or if instead, “history is too painful to remember.” Ultimately, she decides it is her duty as a filmmaker and daughter to return to the past regardless of how her mother, or anybody else for that matter, feels about it. Christine ends Ha Ha Shanghai by stating, “I’m dedicating this to my mother, but I don’t think I’m going to show it to her.”
Featured image shows Christine Choy in The Exiles; all images courtesy Violet Columbus and Ben Klein.