They Chose China (Canada, 2005, Director: Shui-Bo Wang, 52 minutes): An utterly compelling look at a forgotten group of US prisoners of war who refused to be repatriated to the United States after the Korean War. At the time, these 20-odd soldiers were branded “turncoats and traitors” by red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. In archival films, we see them making statements against Senator McCarthy and the current political climate in America, and although many of these archival films seem to have been created for propaganda reasons by the Chinese, the men claim that they were never mistreated in the prisoner-of-war camps. In fact, we see them organizing games and sports, even an “Inter-Camp Olympics”! Of course, having these men stay in China was a huge propaganda coup and they were quickly sent for “education” on the history of socialism and the Chinese Communist Party. Despite that, some stayed and even married in China. Gradually, most of the men returned to the United States, where they faced courts martial and scorn from the media and public.
It was a strange and almost forgotten episode in the Cold War and there is still a lot of ambiguity about what really motivated the men to stay. At the time, the American media speculated that they had been brainwashed (like in The Manchurian Candidate), but it didn’t appear that simple. It was just as clear that when the men returned home, the media used them in its own sort of propaganda war. One man’s interview with Mike Wallace was painful to watch, as Wallace continued to use the term “turncoat and traitor” over and over again. They were very different times.
The director’s voice over, in Chinese-accented English, was sometimes a little difficult to follow, but he did make clear that he considered these men heroes for trying to build bridges between enemies, and I’d tend to agree with that sentiment, even with so many questions left unanswered.