Published Sep 10, 2015In the documentary A Young Patriot, director Haibin Du's perspective on Mao's legacy and the Communist Party of China is crystal clear. Though 19-year-old Zhao, the doc subject, is aggressively patriotic at the start of the film, extolling the many virtues of Mao and the collective, familial spirit of the Communist ideology, Du's judgment is omnipresent. When Zhao makes a statement about governmental investment in the education and betterment of China's youths, Du quickly cuts to a discussion with his father about the amount of money they had to borrow to get him into a good kindergarten.
These juxtapositions fuel the trajectory and the tone of A Young Patriot. As Zhao marches through the streets with a Chinese flag, singing songs about national supremacy — global domination is often the underlying message — there's always an acknowledgement of the many students protesting or the rural farmers that refuse to expose their children to the propaganda machine.
This socio-political doc takes place over five years. At first, Zhao is studying to get into a good school. Ideally, he wants to become a photographer with the propaganda unit of the military, but what's highlighted are the many hoops he has to jump through — most of which are quite costly to his family — to succeed in modern China. On the periphery of this blind patriotism are hints of problems, such as the fact that Zhao's brother had to forfeit school and work so that the family could afford to send Zhao. An early drunken rant shows that underneath the regurgitated rhetoric, Zhao is quietly observing the imbalances and injustice.
On the narrative front, A Young Patriot is quite compelling. The basic construction — chiefly the editing and pacing — is quite exceptional, building from one event to the next to create a natural character arc and coming-of-age dynamic. When Zhao volunteers to teach underprivileged farm children — a culture he's often critical and dismissive of — his preoccupation with teaching the children political allegiance, rather than math or language, is quite telling of the overriding social ethos. Du, having a very specific perspective on it all, captures the eager parroting of political mantras by the children with a sense of horror and awe, which is reiterated by the passive observation of the totalitarian, capitalist military regime driving it all.
While these critiques of modern China are fair, there is an overriding sense of manipulation. The limited power of the people and the single-minded pursuit of world authority, despite hypocritical critique of a similar western sensibility, are well-presented and articulated, just as Zhao's gradual shift in allegiance is technically plausible, particularly when his grandparents are uprooted from their home after the government decides they need their land. But the aggressive polarity in these perspectives almost seems forced, as though Zhao was either performing at the beginning of the film or had been strongly influenced by Du over the protracted filming period. This is particularly evident when his rants shift to outright polemic, noting the hasty mismanagement of the Communist Party and their eagerness to exploit and dispose of lower class citizens.
Still, despite this sense of insincerity and some rather clumsy visual metaphors that pop up in the last act — watch for a tunnel with a light at the end of it — A Young Patriot is an extremely relevant, socially vital work. It's also a consistently engaging and challenging work that has a natural flow and ease in how it communicates its story and ideas. Regardless of political beliefs, it's hard to imagine someone not having a reaction to or a strong opinion about this doc, which is an achievement in itself.