Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 23, 2016 6:04 am 
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Star of his own spiraling show

A Young Patriot is a picture of ideological growing pains in the new China, told by closely following the life of student Zhao Chantong for five years, from high school into university and from naive jingoism into disenchantment. It's a bit like an intense and extended version of one of Michael Apted's celebrated "Up" series, only with particularly strong national implications, and it's so good one wishes that, like Apted's subjects, Zhao could be followed throughout his life. There is also something here that often happens in the best documentaries: the filmmaker sticks tirelessly with his subject wherever it takes him, and unexpected things occur, in this case, the disenchantment. The title for what was to have been a straightforward study of extreme patriotism takes on, by film's end, a rueful, ironic meaning. Engaging, touching, and enlightening, A Young Patriot is a wonderful documentary.

Young Zhao is an attractive, personable young man, articulate, with a big smile; he also seems at first, at 19, in the last year of high school, to be a bit of a fool. By the end of the film, when these tumultuous years in his life have passed, it's all different. Zhao doesn't seem foolish anymore: in fact his friends are joking that he's become a cynic. Consistently from the start, which isn't a bad thing, he's rather a showoff, performing for the camera. In fact he has a camera himself, and wants, among other things, to become a photographer, doing propaganda for the army. The idea of "fly-on-the-wall" documentary filmmaking doesn't fit here. Isn't Maoist zealotry a performance anyway? Zhao is often intoning patriotic slogans and singing patriotic songs - he has a nice voice.

The signal early moment, of course, is Zhao in an old military uniform - he dreams of becoming a soldier - walking down a busy little street of his home northern city of Pingyao shouting complaints about another country's disrespect toward China and waving a big Chinese flag on a long pole. When he speaks in private, Zhao blathers excitedly about his love of the country and eagerness to serve it. He believes the slogans. He's ignorant. He thinks there was some sort of democratic movement in the country in 1989 and when he mentions Tiananmen Square, is unaware there was a massacre there. He has no Chinese "cultural literacy" - though in his post-1990 demographic such wisdom may be hard to come by.

There seems to be one tumultuous event after another and Du Haibin captures them splendidly. University entrance exams, for instance, seem a massive happening. And Zhao doesn't pass! He tells the camera he won't even report his scores. He decides to take another year of high school, despite the extra cost to his family, and he passes: another happening: a big celebration with much drunkenness where Zhao declares his ambitions and enthusiasms again. But he's not all enthusiasm: he says he hates Mahjong - a big thing in Chengdu, Sichuan, where he's going to study. He says it's ruined his father. And while working as a hotel doorman, he has had occasion to note how the civility of the Japanese businessmen contrasts with the boorishness of the uncouth new Chinese capitalists.

We follow Zhao to university, and into a couple of classrooms, an example of the seamless access Du achieves throughout. They are propaganda too, but we see that while Zhao says nothing is different except for his having a girlfriend, he's in a more sophisticated world now. Thus the big Mao-themed restaurant with a floor show, exploring a kind of kitsch appeal to the national leader's cult that may be tongue-in-cheek. We realize that even if Zhao's naive patriotism has been a form of stupidity, it's also a form of thinking, and he's thinking all the time, and putting it all into words. But there's still a moment when he simply expresses his sheer joy at being a university student.

One of the two most memorable sequences in this eye-popping, fascinating film is a summer trip of ten students up to a rural, mountainous region of Sichuan, Zhao the apparent leader, his girlfriend, and eight others, to teach young kids for 15 days. These Yi tribe people are dirt poor (literally, covered with dirt), conditions are rough, Zao and his comrades' enthusiasm remains unbroken. Du Haibin and his photographer's seamless coverage was never so impressive. And the smiling, eager kids, struggling to understand Mandarin, with a Yi dialect interpreter standing by, one little boy designated as a leader, are almost unbearably cute. This is a powerful entry into the bildingsroman that is A Young Patriot.

Is there a subconscious link, though, for Zhao, between these isolated, left-out Yi tribe people and himself? Because the second powerful and significant sequence is that of the demolition of his family house, and his grandparents'. It was obvious at the start that where they lived wasn't a part of the brand new pre-fab China. It's shabby but has a kind of funky charm. Everything has a patina. They say it took years to build, and minutes to take down. There is compensation, but Zhao's uncle tries to hold out and protest demolition of the grandparents' place. It doesn't work, and Zhao, looking very pale, the adolescent bloom faded, declares ruefully that they got exactly the compensation for this that the local administrator originally proposed, not a penny more. Later we see Zhao's grandfather, moved to his uncle's house, who was immobile before, can now no longer even speak. And he dies. Zhao is deeply hurt by the brutality of this, which is typical of today's China.

Finally we see Zhao the cynic, in a room at university. He sits smoking a cigarette. His head is shaved, making him appear older - and different. He has a coat draped over his shoulders, giving him a sophisticated, blasé, intellectual look. The young Maoist who wanted to be a propaganda photographer for the army has flown away. Maybe he'll join Du Haibin's team and make revelatory, vérité-style documentaries like this one.

This film was reviewed at the Hong Kong festival for Hollywood Reporter by Clarence Tsui, who comments that "Despite the predictability of its narrative arc, Du's documentary remains captivating viewing from start to end." Nothing could be more true. In its own way, this is as exciting and brilliant a new Chinese film as Bi Gan's feature Kaili Blues.

A Young Patriot/Shao nian, xiao zhao, 105 mins., debuted at Hong Kong and has shown at at least 10 other international festivals, including Toronto and San Francisco; it was screened at the latter for this review. (It shows at the SFIFF 4 Apr. 2016 at 2pm at BAMPFA; 2 May at 9:30pm at Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.)


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