TIFF 2015 Review: A Young Patriot18 September 2015 / by Reza Hassanirad (author)
A Young Patriot
Director: Du Haibin
Chinese filmmaker Du Haibin's documentary A Young Patriot introduces us to its central subject, teenager Zhao Chantong, as he crackles in a state of ideological frenzy in the middle of a provincial market in China. Bedecked in Maoist apparel, the young man fervently waves the Chinese flag, denouncing alleged Japanese maritime aggression. Passersby and shoppers meet his zeal with curious bemusement and a local news crew casually documents his theatrics for propaganda value.
The scene vividly encapsulates contemporary China, where communism is vocally espoused in the midst of the aloof and pragmatic buzz of the commercial market. This milieu frames the life of Zhao, a stalwart Maoist whose firm convictions slowly erode over the course of the film.
We follow Zhao from his high school days, where he struggles with his post-secondary placement exams, to university where he meets his first girlfriend, makes new friends, and becomes an avid shutterbug, all while re-negotiating his worldview in the face of fresh experiences and struggles.
With close access to Zhao's life, director Du Haibin skillfully captures his evolution. Early on, Zhao is less of a critical thinker than a shibboleth spewer desperate for an identity; however, despite his naïveté, he's affable and warm. As his thinking and personality slowly mature, our connection to him deepens.
When Zhao and his university friends travel to teach in a remote mountain village as part of a university program to promote Chinese patriotism, the focus of the film shifts to the delightful and mischievous children of the tiny hamlet. However, the focus falls back on Zhao sharply when the same government that he had praised as the paragon of political virtue bullies his parents and grandparents into sacrificing their homes for a motorway expansion. A long, chilling sequence has Zhao defiantly filming local government officials who've arrived with a bulldozer. This experience concentrates Zhao's growing disillusionment with the Chinese state and marks the end of the callow youth we had known earlier.
Our final moment with Zhao has him walking with purpose through a pedestrian underpass. The wall is spray painted with a government acclamation that praises the municipal campaign that uprooted his family. Though a red star adorns his cap, this is not the same ideologue we met in the market. He's much angrier.
Director Du Haibin ends the documentary with a stark and fitting image. Set in a windswept landscape, the head of a seated Mao Zedong statue is wrapped with a plastic bag, suffocatingly tight.