Sunday, July 26, 2015

AAIFF ’15: A Young Patriot

Zhao Changtong can relate the events of student protests in 1919, blow for blow, but he has no idea what happened during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. He is the perfect product of China’s educational system. The teenager is so wound up with nationalist fervor, he frequently parades through the streets of Pingyao chanting Maoist anthems, but his indoctrination will be profoundly tested by life after graduation. Du Haibin follows Zhao for five eventful years, charting his painful maturation in A Young Patriot (trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Hailing from a working class urban family, Zhao is the sort of student who is a prime target for the state’s unceasing propaganda campaign. When we first meet him through Du’s lens, he gives the Communist government credit for so conscientiously providing for him and his classmates. However, Du and editor Mary Stephens quickly cut to his parents, who explain all the economic sacrifices they made to pay for his school fees over the years. Reality is not what he thinks it is, as he learns when he is finally admitted to university and forced to take out considerable student loans in his own name.

While Zhao tries to maintain his patriotic zeal by volunteering for the campus propaganda association (they really do use the term “propaganda”), he cannot help noticing how greater opportunities are afforded to his better connected classmates. However, nothing will bring home the realities of China’s extreme social stratification like service as a volunteer teacher in the grindingly poor Sichuan mountainside. For a mere fifteen days, Zhao and his colleagues will provide Dialiangshan’s children the only education they will get until another such fifteen day excursion can be mounted.

Clearly, the Sichuan trip essentially completes Zhao’s intellectual and emotional divorce from the Communist worldview. To his credit, he also develops heretofore unseen empathy, maintaining a connection to the village after their brief term of service. Alas, contemporary China has one more curve ball to throw him, when the corrupt local authorities nationalize both the new house his parents are constructing and the longtime home of his grandparents for their latest dodgy development scheme.

In its way, Patriot is an epic film, but Du and Stephens (who deserves major award consideration) pare it down to a tightly compelling, keenly telling narrative. Clocking in under two hours, it is far more manageable than Hoop Dreams—and its stakes are far greater. Frankly, few documentaries force the audience to so fundamental revise their attitudes towards it subject. When we first meet the rather obnoxious young man, we instinctively tip him for someone due for a rude awakening, but we eventually feel for him quite deeply as he and his family face Job-like misfortunes.

Du has an extraordinarily shrewd eye for relevant little details, such as damning snippets of the historically inaccurate indoctrination that passes for instruction at Zhao’s university. Yet, that carefully constructed misinformation campaign turns to dust when Zhao and his fellow students looking into the neglected eyes of their Sichuan students. Shrewdly, Du also uses the concurrent rise and fall of “Red Revival” Party leader Bo Xilai to echo and punctuate Zhao’s bitter loss of faith.

This is a hugely important film on a macro level, but it is completely gripping on a micro level. Without question, it is Du’s best work to date, eclipsing the admirably brave and immersive 1428. Very highly recommended for anyone seeking an intimate understanding of China’s “Post-1990’s Generation,” A Young Patriot screens this afternoon (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.