FREER IN HONG KONG

Cinema is vi­brant there as film­mak­ers probe cur­rent is­sues, but the main­land squelches fes­ti­vals like this.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY CALENDAR - By Clarissa Se­bag-Mon­te­fiore cal­en­dar@la­times.com

HONG KONG — “Coca-Cola has no place here,” de­clares the 19year-old pro­tag­o­nist of “A Young Pa­triot,” one of the films show­cased at this year’s Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. “Co­caCola is very for­eign.”

In this timely doc­u­men­tary Chi­nese film­maker Du Haibin fol­lows im­pas­sioned Mao wor­shiper Zhao Cha­tong over three years. Zhao’s jin­go­ism reaches fever pitch as he protests against the Ja­panese claims over the Diaoyu Is­lands. “Our mother coun­try is grow­ing stronger and stronger. I’m not just mouthing clichés. I see it with my own eyes,” states the teenager.

Clichés are, of course, ex­actly what Zhao es­pouses: He is fond of phrases such as “We live in the big fam­ily of our na­tion.” But when he en­ters uni­ver­sity his ide­al­ism be­gins to fal­ter, re­veal­ing in­se­cu­ri­ties and frus­tra­tions with the sys­tem and him­self. Above all, we see China’s own con­vo­luted po­lit­i­cal land­scape through the eyes of a young man fall­ing out of love with na­tion­al­ism.

“Na­tional pride is grow­ing af­ter nearly more than a cen­tury of long, com­pli­cated and am­biva­lent his­tory,” ex­plains the doc­u­men­tary’s pro­ducer, Ruby Chen. “Direc­tor Du Haibin came across the pro­tag­o­nist Zhao five years ago while he was protest­ing on the street in a small city and was in­trigued by his pa­tri­otic en­thu­si­asm, which started a long film­ing process as well as the quest for un­der­stand­ing bet­ter the younger gen­er­a­tion.”

“A Young Pa­triot” is just one film from the Chi­nese main­land to ad­dress top­i­cal is­sues at the 39th Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, which wraps up Mon­day.

Born af­ter the Tianan­men Square crack­down, the “post 1990s” gen­er­a­tion has been hit with the full force of China’s pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion cam­paign, which em­pha­sized the force of for­eign in­vaders and brushed over the party’s own fal­la­cies.

In re­cent years, as China’s po­lit­i­cal clout has grown, there has been a resur­gence in Mao rev­er­ence. “A Young Pa­triot” ad­dresses this with­out pro­pa­gan­diz­ing. In­stead Du, whose pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary “1428,” about the af­ter­math of the 2008 Sichuan earth­quake, re­ceived more than 3 mil­lion views on­line and won the best doc­u­men­tary prize at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val, is a pas­sive ob­server who al­lows the com­plex­i­ties of his sub­ject to shine.

Nowhere is this more ap­par­ent than when the doc­u­men­tary’s sub­ject, Zhao, goes to teach in an im­pov­er­ished moun­tain vil­lage in Sichuan prov­ince. At uni­ver­sity lec­tures he was told: “Who led China to re­newed pros­per­ity? It was the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party.”

Yet in this wet, steamy land­scape he finds only poverty. Zhao strug­gles to come to terms with this con­tra­dic­tion, at one mo­ment proudly teach­ing his eth­nic mi­nor­ity wards the na­tional an­them and at an­other con­ced­ing an­grily: “We’ve been brain­washed all this time. If we say it bluntly it’s brain­wash­ing. If we say it nicely it’s called ‘rais­ing po­lit­i­cal aware­ness.’ ”

Chi­nese films at the fes­ti­val range from Chai Hong­fang and Fan Jian’s “Man­u­fac­tur­ing Ro­mance,” about young as­pi­ra­tional work­ers who have aban­doned their home­towns in search of em­ploy­ment and love, to “Song of the Phoenix,” in which the late direc­tor Wu Tian­ming ex­plores how the art form of the suona, a tra­di­tional wood­wind in­stru­ment, is strug­gling to sur­vive the on­slaught of mod­ern­iza­tion. All told some 260 ti­tles from scores of coun­tries are be­ing screened.

Movies in China to­day are vi­brant “be­cause the coun­try has larger is­sues that need ad­dress­ing and more peo­ple are will­ing or happy in ad­dress­ing those is­sues us­ing the cinema,” ex­plains fes­ti­val cu­ra­tor Ja­cob Wong. “Chi­nese cinema is not en­trenched by tra­di­tion, so a lot of things are in flux. For a cre­ative in­dus­try that’s a plus.”

Hong Kong’s “one coun­try, two sys­tems” al­lows for a free­dom of ex­pres­sion not af­forded in the main­land, where cen­sor­ship and com­mer­cial mar­ket pres­sures pre­vail. With in­de­pen­dent film fes­ti­vals in China tar­geted in re­cent years and most hav­ing shut down, fes­ti­vals such as this one “pro­vide vi­tal nodes of con­nec­tion, com­mu­nity, ex­hi­bi­tion, dia­logue, en­gage­ment and not least of all, au­di­ence,” says Karin Chien, founder of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese in­de­pen­dent film dis­trib­u­tor dGen­er­ate Films. “HK­IFF has had a tra­di­tion of show­ing and sup­port­ing bold, in­ter­est­ing and dar­ing work from main­land China. In this cur­rent state, th­ese plat­forms play an even more crit­i­cal role.”

One topic hot in the head­lines is the fraught re­la­tion­ship be­tween Tai­wan and its larger neigh­bor. Tai­wanese new wave au­teur Wan Jen tack­les th­ese ten­sions us­ing hu­mor. In his “Meet the Fock­ers”es­que com­edy “It Takes Two to Tango,” Wan fol­lows a cou­ple torn apart by their re­spec­tive coun­tries. A Tai­wanese ex­ec­u­tive work­ing in Bei­jing falls in love with a main­land mu­si­cian only to break up with him be­cause of cul­tural clashes. She re­turns home to Tai­wan fol­lowed by her for­mer lover, who is determined to win her back. The big­gest prob­lem proves to be the pair’s pa­tri­otic fa­thers, who em­bark on their own war in this pop­ulist take on pol­i­tics.

A far qui­eter, more melan­choly movie is “River Road” by Chi­nese direc­tor Li Rui­jun. In this po­etic and of­ten dark adventure tale, two chil­dren from the Tur­kic-speak­ing Uyghur mi­nor­ity em­bark on a trek across the desert of north­west­ern China to find their herder par­ents. The pair, broth­ers Bar­tel and Adi­keer, spar as they ride their camels on the danger­ous jour­ney. Their fa­ther tells them to fol­low the river, yet de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion has left it dry. It is not only the Uyghur’s tra­di­tional way of life that is slowly dy­ing but the very graz­ing lands them­selves.

For Bar­tel and Adi­keer, shut out of from the coun­try’s eco­nomic growth, that means only loss. They stum­ble across the ghostly aban­doned vil­lages of their kin and dis­cover an an­cient monastery carved into the rocks where the la­mas are leav­ing for more fer­tile climes. Faced with the de­struc­tion of their home­land and the rivers and wells that nour­ish them the boys cry only oc­ca­sion­ally. More of­ten they stare in be­mused in­com­pre­hen­sion at the work­ers blow­ing up land in the gold quar­ries and the gi­ant ugly fac­tory pump­ing pol­lu­tion into the prairies.

For Chien, both “River Road” and “A Young Pa­triot” tap into the “dual fas­ci­na­tion seen in many Chi­nese in­de­pen­dent films — the ab­sur­di­ties of mod­ern life in China’s big­gest cities and the dis­ap­pear­ing ways of life in ru­ral and eth­nic ar­eas. Chi­nese in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers may feel it’s their re­spon­si­bil­ity to doc­u­ment what is oc­cur­ring, and dis­ap­pear­ing, in to­day’s rapidly chang­ing China.”

HK­IFF

THE NEW DOC­U­MEN­TARY “A Young Pa­triot” fol­lows Zhao Cha­tong, who’s been raised in the old-school na­tion­al­ism of a post-Tianan­men ed­u­ca­tion cam­paign.

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