What is patriotism and what does contemporary patriotism look like? How does the idealism of youth hold up against the complexities of reality and the violence of history? In A Young Patriot, a documentary that follows Zhao Changtong, a patriotic Chinese youth, as he matures from a boy to a young man, these questions are slowly unpacked and the viewer is allowed a glimpse into the mentality of China’s post-1990 generation. As a form of historical archive, A Young Patriot is important in that it sheds light on how contemporary Chinese individuals negotiate matters of identity, individuality, and nationalism. However, director Du Haibin’s choice to focus on Zhao’s point-of-view and its relative lack of contextualization of a transitioning China prevents this documentary from being as hard-hitting as it could be.
After a few establishing shots, the film begins with the striking image of Zhao wearing a Mao-era military uniform and bellowing “Long live China! Give back Daoyu Islands!” in the streets as he vigorously waves the national flag. Unlike the spectators who giggle and echo Zhao’s cries playfully, Zhao is earnest and free from self-consciousness. With unbridled enthusiasm, he talks to the camera about his affinity to Mao Zedong (the two of them, for instance, share the same birthday), his dream to become a soldier in removed regions in China, and how students were pivotal to the May 4 movement in 1919. When the conversation is directed towards the Tiananmen protests in 1989, Zhao confesses to knowing little about what happened. His understanding of Tiananmen – which was given to him by the adults around him – was that “there wasn’t a crackdown” and the students were only sent home.
The documentary tracks Zhao as he graduates from high school and enrolls into Southwest University for Nationalities. One by one, Zhao’s dreams are fulfilled. He becomes a member of the propaganda unit at his university’s student union and travels to a remote village where he uses the PRC’s national anthem to teach Mandarin to children that belong to the ethnic group Miao. Gradually, however, we see Zhao change and his faith in the Chinese government slowly disintegrate. In his interviews, Zhao begins to openly question whether or not government officials can really represent the interests of the people. And near the end of the film, Zhao has transformed from a zealous patriot to an “angry young man,” a terms broadly used to connote youths that are dissatisfied with the status quo. His early loquaciousness is replaced by a reluctance to comment on matters that he now founds too complicated for him to fully decipher with speech.
A Young Patriot is essentially a coming-of-age film, a documentation of young Zhao as he transitions from romantically-minded to pragmatic. Zhao’s own university experience and his instruction of Miao children through the national anthem also brings to the fore the disturbing reality that education can be both enlightenment as well as indoctrination, depending on where you stand in matters, and how for some people, their first contact with language is indeed already steeped in ideology.
As a subject, Zhao, with his energy and the ease with which he assumes the position of a leader, is compelling to watch. The film focuses almost exclusively on him, with only one or two snatches of interviews from his parents. For a film that spends a large portion of the time filming Zhao in his university environment, we also get scant exposure to what Zhao’s peers think of his idealism (and later cynicism). The absence of voices from other individuals can’t help but make the viewer raise questions: How do the people around Zhao interpret his ideas of the nation and the government? Is Zhao’s patriotic fervor common among his generation or is it an anomaly? And what actually precipitated Zhao’s disillusionment?
We are unable to get satisfactory answers to these questions from A Young Patriot. The film’s brief allusions to events happening in China in Zhao’s university years, including government corruption scandals, provide a rough sketch of the political turbulence that may have incubated Zhao’s dissatisfaction with the governing administration. However, the lack of contextualisation impairs the forcefulness of the film’s message and given that we are only given access to Zhao’s point-of-view, Zhao’s journey sometimes seems like an isolated, even hermetic, event.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, there is still much to recommend about A Young Patriot. There are many surprisingly affecting moments, moments of vulnerability that may embarrass Zhao to have them filmed but which gives the film a human touch. One moment has a slightly tipsy Zhao breaking down in tears and expressing his guilt that his brother had to sacrifice himself to support the family and Zhao’s dreams to go to college, a not uncommon phenomenon among many of the poorer families in China. The other moment captures Zhao silently filming an excavator tearing down his grandparent’s house for a government construction project as tears rolls down his cheeks. Moments like these, when the personal and the political intersect and the personal becomes the political, are where the film shows its strengths.
A Young Patriot will be shown as part of the Chinese Visual Festival at Bertha DocHouse on May 18.