We first meet Zhao Chantong at the age of 19. Like many young men, he’s idealistic, passionate and naive. Like many young men, Zhao will change and grow greatly over the next three years of his life. Haibin Du’s documentary paints an intricate picture of youth and lost souls. A Young Patriot handled not only the impressionistic qualities found in those transitioning into adulthood but focuses on the fiery patriotism found in those born in 1990s China; those now starting to venture out on their own and think for themselves more clearly. During the several years Du follows his passionate protagonist, Zhao passes exams, studies at university and teaches in a remote Chinese village. We witness him experience a variety of personal but universal experiences such as getting drunk, finding love and planning for his future. His most important lesson comes in the film’s closing minutes. Zhao learns a variety of important life lessons particularly through the people he meets and the injustice he witnesses. As well as developing as a young adult, Zhao’s identity as a proud Chinese citizen also shifts, develops and grows more complex.
There are occasional splatters of cheer and character from Zhao and his friends, with Du letting his subjects speak for themselves, tell their own stories and represent the society they are part of. Growing up under communism, Zhao and his companions display recognisable manner and nature alongside relentless patriotism, itself unrecognisable to a Western audience. Zhao is full of hope and ideals some of which remain at the film’s close; others dashed and faded with time and experience. What I like about A Young Patriot is the light it shines on youthful disorientation and that crucial time in our lives when one becomes an utterly independent thinker. At this point, still confused and disorientated by those we come into contact with and the headlines our papers throw at us, we start to determine who we may well be for the rest of our lives. It’s clear to see from A Young Patriot that Zhao will remain a passionate yet stern individual until the end of his days but we do witness small changes making themselves known over the three years we spend with him; changes that can grow and define us more distinctly than we may realise. A Young a Patriot is pleasantly non-political and instead a surprising celebration of our ability to both vastly change and drastically stay the same. Set against a fascinating backdrop of what seems like rather radical patriotism, A Young Patriot highlights the great differences between Chinese and Western culture whilst simultaneously pointing out that youthful idealism and impressionism is global.
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