Twin Cities area film programmer Kathie Smith reviews Zhao Liang’s documentary Crime and Punishment, which screened earlier this year at the Trylon Microcinema, as part of a series of Chinese independent films programmed by Smith:
Crime and Punishment, Zhao Liang first feature length documentary, is an observational powerhouse. Bringing direct cinema back from the ashes, Zhao adds another dimension to China’s dichotomies by focusing on a small forgotten corner of this rising superpower. Situated on his home turf, Zhao is given unprecedented access to a local police station along the North Korean border. Mean streets these are not. Instead we have life on the margins where ambitions of any kind have left this town behind. The police are candid, the situations are often defy logic, and the arrests add up to little more than harassment masquerading as control. Even moments of idleness seem to be cloaked in an aura of base tedium: cleaning a gun, fiddling with a pair of handcuffs or a bout of wrestling in the snow.
With a hands-off approach, Zhao draws a very fine line between the oppressed and the oppressors and quickly reveals a somewhat desperate attempt to maintain a certain amount of authority and self-respect within a low-lying hierarchy. Crime and Punishment opens quietly with a ritual where the policemen fold their bedding into an impossible cube. If you detach yourself, this formality strikes very close to pure performance art, but as a prescribed duty this meticulous detail is indicative of the systematic subservience expected from the officers. You don’t see it when they are nonchalantly castigating their fellow comrades, but the veiled pressures lie just bellow the surface, causing these men to kick a dog when it’s down, figuratively and quite literally. Just another cog in a repressive regime, these latent bullies hide their vulnerability behind their uniform. When some are dismissed in a callous bureaucratic downsizing, the rug that is pulled out from beneath these young men is written all over their faces. One officer’s depressed drunken diatribe, perhaps realizing that he will soon be no different than his former detainees, lays bare an unexpected fragility and tenderness.