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Filmed across three locations and over a period of more than five years, Du Haibin‘s latest documentary is a mammoth undertaking worthy of the sprawling nature of its subject matter. While essentially a record of a fiery Chinese idealist’s rite of passage, A Young Patriot also chronicles the contradictions underpinning China’s nationalist discourse.
Despite the predictability of its narrative arc, Du’s documentary remains captivating viewing from start to end. The director and his editor Mary Stephen have succeeded in weaving telling episodes into a linear, coherent tale about a thinking man’s fall into despair. As a corollary to frequent reports about the Chinese government’s efforts in recruiting young believers for its propaganda, A Young Patriot offers an alternative and more humanistic approach in decoding what could appear to be merely a monolithic jingoistic frenzy.
Compared to his more stylized or symbolism-filled documentaries of yore, Du has shaped A Young Patriot more along the lines of cinema verité. While the film hits rough patches, there’s ample topicality and energy on show here. Sustained bookings at international documentary programs and China-themed showcases should follow after its award-winning bow at the Hong Kong International Film Festival last week.
Bookending A Young Patriot are two surreal images, both revolving around a statue of Mao Zedong. At the start of the film, the statue stares grandiosely from its pedestal atop city walls, surrounded by a sea of fluttering red flags; at the end, however, the same statue sits unceremoniously in the middle of a piece of barren land.
The sculpture’s fall from grace mirrors the diminishing Mao-worshipping fervor of the film’s protagonist, Zhao Chantong. A member of the so-called post-1990s generation – a demographic born after (and thus unaware of) the bloody clampdown on pro-democracy students in Beijing in June 1989 – Zhao begins the film as a red flag-waving 19-year-old, singing Communist Party anthems and craving patriotic action in the army. By the film’s end, he’s a university graduate questioning the lack of civil rights and proper supervision by the so-called managers of the country.
Zhao’s xenophobia is tempered by his stint as a hotel doorman, during which he observes the civility of Japanese guests and the uncouth behavior of the Chinese parvenu. For all the lectures about the Chinese Communist Party saving the country and centralized authoritarian rule being the key to economic success in 20th-century East Asia, Zhao also discovers classmates seeing membership of the party as merely a stepping stone for a better career. While Zhao is hardly seen out of his khaki-themed, camouflage-colored clothes, the young patriot’s internal consciousness wavers, as he eventually indulges in the material pleasures – smoking, drinking, playing mahjong – for which he initially expressed abject distaste.
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Du has masterfully employed young Zhao to decipher how all this youthful naivete is readily exploited by those in power. The boy’s fanaticism coincides with the politically-motivated resurgence of Mao’s self-styled proletarian ideals and imagery related to the Cultural Revolution; his awakening from all this dogma, meanwhile, takes place just as this “red revival” subsides, the result of the removal of the movement’s helmsman, Bo Xilai, from public office in what is widely seen as the consequence of a power struggle within the party.
Zhao is finally fully jolted out of his patriotic paradise as state-backed corruption finally arrives at his family’s doorstep in the shape of bulldozers reducing everything to ruin in the name of “urban development”. It’s a shocking and sadly unsurprising end to Zhao’s idealism – but then again, tragedy is nearly inevitable from the moment the boy is seen reading Voltaire and Montesquieu. With A Young Patriot, Du has revealed Chinese patriotism as an unwieldy beast, and its believers as much victims of blind, desperate faith as they are merely cultural chauvinists looking for a fight.
Production companies: CNEX Studio Corporation, ITVS International, 24 Images
Director: Du Haibin
Producers: Ben Tsang, Ruby Chen
Director of photography: Liu Aiguo
Editor: Mary Stephen
Music: Pierre Carrasco
International Sales: CNEX Studio Corporation
No rating; 106 minutes
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