Mercury Cinema, Tue 29 Sep
This fascinating documentary with a strong narrative has many of the hallmarks of a feature film. A Young Patriot chronicles three years out of the life of Zhao, a 19-year-old patriot from Xiangsi Province who was discovered by director Du Haibin waving flags for government causes on the streets of his hometown.
Given the increasing influence China has in the contemporary world, it is both charming and a little scary to view this first-hand account of how China is changing; charming because of the endless succession of superb images from deep inside Chinese society (university classes, student dorm accommodation, intimate moments in the family home) and scary because of the lingering propensity towards propaganda and slogans that present the Chinese nation as a loving motherland that apparently does not need to engage in any critical self-analysis.
And this, too, is Zhao’s dilemma. He progresses from a faithful patriot reminiscent of the Youth Brigades of the Cultural Revolution from the Mao period to an older, wiser young man who resents the treatment the state hands out to his family when they are forcibly relocated, and who concedes that there is indeed room for some critical analysis of the state.
Zhao has a fondness for the propaganda songs from Mao’s time, and frequently bursts into song to explain what is happening around him – especially after a few drinks. Their naïveté is endearing and their potential to cause harm alarming, but whatever you may think of the content of these songs they are quite tuneful and Zhao himself is a reasonable singer.
Romantic and youthful idealism drives him and a group of fellow university students to spend two weeks in the mountains teaching the children of an ethnic hill tribe, and these scenes of a remote, hard life and the students’ attempts to teach these grubby cute children are unforgettable.
Regular interviews with Zhao throughout the film update us on how he and his country are changing.
The film is rich in symbolism and visual metaphor, and from a Western perspective quite boggling. It feels like time travel until you realise that this is contemporary China. This is China now. The glitz and the glamour of the shopping malls of Beijing is as opulent and consumer focused as any city in the developed world, but A Young Patriot reveals another China that is both timeless and changing rapidly.
This leaves young Zhao thinking that life is a lot more complicated than he realised, and while he is reluctant to give away his patriotism all together, he concedes in the end that it must be seen from a much broader perspective.