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Reviews Are In: Unanimous Praise for <i>Crime and Punishment</i> and <i>Petition</i>, Now Playing in

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

Today is the first day of screenings for the indomitable Zhao Liang at Anthology Film Archives, and we couldn’t be happier with the press coverage so far. Here are some choice clips from reviews by New York critics for Zhao’s films Crime and Punishment (opening tonight at 6 and 9; additional screenings Saturday and Sunday) and Petition (starting tomorrow and screening daily at 6:30 and 9:30). More reviews and directions to Anthology after the break.

EMERGING FROM ARDUOUS, dangerous, in-the-trenches work, Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang‘s documentary investigations open onto the profound problems of a country often kept hidden by authorities. His interest is in the banal mechanics of systematic oppression: His remarkable debut Crime and Punishment (2007), for instance, provides a rare look into the People’s Armed Police, a branch of law enforcement similar to the military in its regimented lifestyle and coldly abusive administration of “justice.”

Michael Joshua Rowin, ArtForum

Crime and Punishment (2007) follows the paramilitary People’s Armed Police on the beat, gaining extraordinary access to a station in the rugged, frigid Northeast, on the North Korean border. The staff of young officers – pettily prideful, swimming in their uniforms – is naive enough not to self-censor for the camera. They show as bullies, incompetent if not malicious, with their lone investigative technique a face-slap.

– Nick Pinkerton, The Village Voice

Although it has its clear literary antecedents in Kafka and Bleak House, Petition‘s look at the arbitrary and corrupt nature of authority is of a specifically Chinese variety – not to mention the authentic stuff of actuality. A case of life imitating art – or rather art documenting life imitating art – Zhao Liang’s non-fiction film continues the director’s dissection of petty Sino-officialdom begun in his first film, Crime and Punishment. While that movie recorded the power abuses of soldiers policing the Chinese-North Korean border, Zhao’s latest film moves to Beijing to document the bureaucratic nightmare known as the petition system.

– Andrew Schenker, The L Magazine

A companion piece of sorts to Zhao’s 2007 look at totalitarian law enforcement, Crime and Punishment, this guerrilla-cinema essay is more than just a look at China’s judicial morass; it’s a dispatch from the front lines of a dictatorship. Cameras smuggled into petition offices (filming inside is a no-no) capture harassment, while government-sanctioned thugs threaten violence, and in one grotesque scene, the remains of an activist are found scattered along train tracks. Yet Petition is also a portrait of a sustaining outsider community, one fueled by dissent and the refusal to give in to a corrupt system.

David Fear, Time Out New York

Faced with absurd obstacles and delays, petitioners spend years rewriting and resubmitting their complaints, all the while living in shanties, under bridges, or in tunnels, and enduring violence at the hands of “retrievers,” government officials sent from their home villages. Despite the threat of arbitrary arrest and internment in detention centers, prisons, and punitive psychiatric hospitals, the petitioners audaciously speak out – distributing flyers in Tiananmen Square, shouting from towers, writing tracts, and holding parades, all of which result in more arrests. Zhao puts on view the sham and the shame of the 2008 Olympics, which served as an official pretext to demolish the petitioners’ settlements, and he shows that discontent with abusive one-party rule isn’t the domain solely of disaffected intellectuals but also of ordinary people who are tired of being, as one of them says, the “new slaves of socialism.”

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

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