willy vvvv’s review published on Letterboxd:
china seems prosperous and strong, GDP top 2 in the world, but what is this prosperity built on?
in chapter 6 of this doc, titled Angry Young Man, Zhao Chantong utters the same exact sentiment i had going into this film as someone opposing everything this 19 year old blind ultra nationalist stood for.
or proclaimed to stand for, as it literally takes under 10 minutes for him to out these beliefs as little more than the lowest hanging fruit towards a teenagers quest for acceptance. or way out of mediocrity, as he puts it. the same benine reason shared by the likes of white nationalism or radical islam.
it starts when he stumbles around the question of the tiananmen massacre, which happened only one year before he was born, admitting he doesn't know much about it other than what some adults told him, but still concluding that nothing really happened. and is instantly doubled down on when we learn about his struggles at school. he maintains his delusions while working as doorman at a hotel by outright lying in his claims that the state provided him with everything he has, education to food. to which the filmmakers in response expertly cut to his dad, smoking under dim light, telling us that -- nah we saved up a whole lot to pay for that boys school. and it's only a while later that Zhao himself begins drunkenly crying about his younger brother who dropped out and works as chef to support him in college.
his beliefs are still firm at this point, portrait of mao watching over him in his college dorm, but it's from the moment he enters college that, without even a nudge from the filmmakers, his belief system and life begin spiraling in a way that i'd call spectacular if it wasn't the same thing a whole lot chinese in his position go through. he learns that reality is different outside of the small bubble of his village, which is illustrated best when him and his class travel to a Yi minority village as volunteer teachers. i don't want to give everything away, but i'm even getting emotional now thinking about that stretch. we essentially get to see him realize the thing a lot of china apologists tend to brush over, the human cost of their historic rise. the generations, and even entire ethnicities of people thrown to the wayside in the name of the majority. Zhao is an easygoing guy, so its rare to see him not smiling, but in that one scene at nighttime, whispering to the camera, his anger lined up with my anger. he shared the sadness i was feeling, as he began backtracking on his earlier attempts to defend a local official who was ousted for a large number of crimes from corruption to murder, by.. dare i even say it? questioning the validity of the chinese communist party.
yet, and this is where my heart broke for real, he would continue the trip instilling the very same propaganda instilled in him, in those helpless, less-than-poor, ethnic minority, mountain village children. spending the vast majority of the curriculum as far as we can tell on teaching them songs and text celebrating the government that would rather have them disappear. in the opening he said he'd love to be stationed in xinjiang or tibet, the 'rough' areas, cuz hes a badass patriot and he can handle it or whatever, yet here he is almost coming apart in the face of a few children on a mountain.
those kids likely wont get the chance to do anything he did, because as far as i know countryside folk and minorities like this cant even get paperwork to live in bigger cities, let alone get decent jobs there, but their innocence being exploited by propaganda in this manner is the same as experienced by any child in china born after 1990. the two ways of growing out of it is either through becoming a victim of the very system, or seeing enough other people become victims. the ways in which this manifests however, ranges anywhere from endangering your life as activist to joining the party. most people will choose the middleground of accepting things passively and trying to make the best of it, but it doesn't take much to swing you into either direction at a whim. just look at the COVID fallout. it went from borderline citizen uprisings when people and villages were literally bolted shut as the government openly exposed itself silencing (and ultimately killing, RIP Li Wenliang) would be heroes, to chinese (and foreign allies now also affected) en masse praising that very government, singing the anthem with tears in eyes, over a catastrophy avoided. even going so far as to celebrate deaths in other countries, from a pandemic objectively caused by their government.
the chinese get fucked over by their own, but the second they begin voicing discontent, the resulting backlash on the world stage is channeled into blocking the rest of the world off further, to unite in the goal of overcoming them at any cost.
this film was already a physical rollercoaster by this point, but when we're following Zhao filming the demolition of his own neighborhood, essentially an act of activism against the government since hes doing this while being yelled at by goons and presumably officials, and see him go from shaking to crying.. desperately documenting this from the roof of his grandparents home, who are still inside with debris falling.. him yelling 'you're killing people' when we see bricks almost hitting their family dog..
he might have reversed once more and become a nationalist yet again today, the level of manipulation chinese nationalism works at is not to be underrated, but that boy was a young patriot no more in those moments.
i started this film extremely hesitantly, and despite going the polar opposite direction id feared, i walk away feeling even iller. this is now one of two chinese indie docs (did i already say this up top? rly jumbled in my notes rn - the other is Tracy Dong's In Character) that completely dismantles chinese nationalism/propaganda, and by extension any propaganda, so effectively that if we were in a post war context or something they'd win awards above just a cinema context. this could be the antidote, if the system itself didn't already plan in advance for that. china or america. nothing good will come from this.