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Hong Kong film festival offers view of a changing China

China has forced most independent film festivals out of business. To see new Chinese films, head to Hong Kong

"Coca-Cola has no place here," declares the 19-year-old protagonist of "A Young Patriot," one of the films showcased at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. "Coca-Cola 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" and "Say no to mediocrity." But when Zhao 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, with fever whipped to boiling point by Bo Xilai before the official's dramatic fall from grace in 2012.

Eager to secure legitimacy by promoting its founding father's image, leaders in 2013 banned discussion in schools of the past errors of the party, inserted symbolic homages to Mao in the army and, for the 120th anniversary of Mao's birthday, held a four-hour fireworks display in his hometown.

"A Young Patriot" addresses these issues 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 at four main venues; the festival provides an interesting keyhole on mainland filmmaking.

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. Last week Taiwanese demonstrators threw eggs to protest against the controversial launch of Chinese flight M503, which will travel over the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from the mainland. In March last year, students stormed government buildings in Taipei to oppose perceived concessions to China. At the same time, however, more young Taiwanese are leaving to work on the mainland, drawn by the latter's economic growth.

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 the country's economic growth because of their isolation and ethnicity, 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."

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