(This review has been kicking around on my hard drive for a while. Check out the film on Fandor.)
When a church bell rings, China’s extreme northeast is probably the last thing on your mind. This is the image, however, that director Zhao Liang leaves us with at the end of Crime and Punishment, an oblique yet searing portrayal of power and oppression in a sleepy, ordinary town. Hymns are heard coming from the quaint church, nestled among the snow-covered hills, as a line of unconcerned people carrying a couch, a dresser and a bed make their way across the frame in the foreground. The shot not only sparks an association with the moral deliberations of the film’s literary namesake, but also adds a sharp contrast to the seemingly unprincipled malaise we just watched.
China is a bundle of contradictions and opposing forces, and, in this respect, it is no different than any other country. But as it gains international prowess, both economically and politically, and it sheds its xenophobic skin, Western perception runs rampant with grand proclamations, broad assumptions and demonizing stereotypes—none of them necessarily true and none of them necessarily false. The burgeoning new documentary movement in China takes very bold vérité stabs at humanizing, if not allegorizing, the social paradoxes, one film, one person, and one shot at a time.
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.
The people detained are less hardened criminals than they are the pettiest of thieves push by dire financial circumstances. A deaf man suspected of stealing a cell phone is drubbed for a confession that he verbally can’t give. A mother is berated for her mentally handicap son who called the police with a false report of a dead body. A gambling room is busted and their Mahjong pieces confiscated. An elderly scrap collector is nicked for not having a permit to do so. And at a routine checkpoint, four men are caught with illegally harvested timber. That the men were probably going to use the wood to either heat their homes or earn a little money makes little difference to the police officers. Although forced into a plea of guilt, it is subsequently overturned by a complaint of police brutality from a savvy wife who nearly chases the officers away from her house. Many of the verbal maneuverings here would fit well in an absurdist play.
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.
Which almost brings us back to the church, but not before a figurative act of violence is enacted on a powerless, abused creature. Jokingly referred to as a sacrificial killing, a cursory slaughter is underscored with a disturbing edge of pitilessness. Although shocking—especially to Western eyes where animals are killed by someone else’s hand behind closed doors—the scene is used to connect the dots that add up to larger implications. Much like Dostoyevsky’s novel, Zhao’s documentary is less about specific crimes and punishments (or lack thereof) than it is about internal transgression and the hypothetical collective question of, where do we go from here? Zhao’s answer is open-ended, with the Currier and Ives portrait of the church humorously disrupted by a transient reality.