The Outrageous Reality of Chinese Cops: Crime and Punishment

By Steve Erickson

Originally published on Fandor, where Crime and Punishment is available on streaming video.

Zhao Liang has distinguished himself as one of the fiercest of the Chinese documentarians who’ve emerged in the past ten years. His 2007 debut Crime and Punishment offers a dose of Zhao’s filmmaking at full force. At first glance, the film, which closely follows the lives of Chinese military police monitoring a North Korean border town, might bring to mind American reality shows like Cops and its ersatz offspring. But its sensibility couldn’t be more different. Zhao’s film emphasizes punishment more than crime: his cops, remarkable for their lack of media savvy, repeatedly beat subjects in front of his cameras. Unlike American reality TV, these incidents aren’t served to the viewer as exploitation passing as entertainment, but something more ethically committed and unnerving.

Zhao captures every detail of the agonizing proceedings, staying with some of his subjects for hours, even days of grueling interrogation. He includes telling moments most directors would leave on the cutting room floor, such as one man’s tortured efforts to remain in a squatting position while handcuffed. The film’s most memorable scenes are its outbursts of police brutality, yet it also gets a potent impact from a drunken discussion about life in the police force between two disillusioned young cops.

Crime and Punishment exposes a whole host of ills in Chinese society: petty bureaucracy, mistreatment of the mentally ill and physically handicapped, rampant alcoholism. A deaf-mute man is beaten and suspected of being a pickpocket because the police can’t communicate with him. Old Wang, a scrap metal salesman, gets arrested for not having the right permit and then isn’t allowed to leave because his son insults the cops on the phone.

No thinking spectator would take Crime and Punishment for a defense of the police force. However, it’s notable that the cops ultimately come off as more pathetic than menacing. None of the men whom they arrest wind up in jail. This is due in part to the cops’ repeated failure to extract confessions through use of violence in lieu of hard evidence. Once freed, Old Wang goes right back to selling scrap metal, a victory of sorts for him. When they get introspective, the police don’t pat each other on the back, but engage in booze-soaked self-pity.

Zhao doesn’t present any solutions to the social problems Crime and Punishment depicts; in fact, his vision would go on to get substantially bleaker in Petition, a documentary depiction of bureaucratic hell that reaches epic Dickensian dimensions. His most recent film Together is just as socially committed, advocating the rights of HIV patients in China, but in a key sense it marks a departure for Zhao’s filmmaking. While Crime and Punishment and Petition were made without the approval of the Chinese government,Together was produced by China’s Ministry of Health with the intention of informing Chinese people about HIV. Despite the compromises inherent in the project and some aesthetic missteps (like a sappy montage about an HIV-positive boy), it shows that his interest in China’s outcasts remains alive. However, to see Zhao at his most intrepid and uncompromising, one must turn to Crime and Punishment.

Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.

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