The Vicious Circle of Justice: Zhao Liang’s <i>Crime and Punishment</i>
Zhao Liang provided one of the most heartrending Chinese documentaries of recent times last year with Petition, an epic work about petitioners living on the fringes of China’s capital. It’s much rarer, however, to see stories about those enforcing the rules in the People’s Republic – the nature of Chinese state institutions means access is usually impossible. Which makes Zhao’s earlier film Crime and Punishment (Zui Yu Fa, 2007) all the more extraordinary, providing as it does an intimate snapshot of life inside a People’s Armed Police (PAP) station.
As Zhao explained in an interview earlier this year, he was only able to gain access to the station, located on the Chinese-Korean border in the remote northeast, because “these people are politically more naive and less politically savvy than their Beijing counterparts.” Zhao does not just exploit the officers’ naivety to expose their petty abuses of power however – the uniformed community provides a microcosm of the broader social structures informing the exercise of state power in contemporary China.
Crime and Punishment opens with the officers patiently folding their mattresses to form neat, identical piles on their beds. This extended sequence not only speaks of the conformist monotony of military life (the armed police are a paramilitary group organized similarly to the army), but also the thin line that separates those enforcing the law in China from those on the receiving end of the state’s coercive power. Like prisoners these men eat, work and sleep together in bare, whitewashed dormitories, kept at arm’s length from the townsfolk outside.
Dogs whimper on the soundtrack as we cut to a shot of the landscape surrounding the station, a beautiful but harsh snow-covered scene beside a river. This is Dongbei – the northeast – where wintertime temperatures can plunge as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the station grounds two guard dogs struggle against overly short leads, only to be repeatedly pulled up by their necks. In the yard young PAP personnel stand in lines on parade. It’s an obvious parallel – too obvious – and only with the film’s final sequence does it become clear Zhao is developing a much more complex analogy than initially appears.
After this introductory sequence we follow the officers as they go about their duties, taking a call from a mentally disturbed man who claims he has found a body in his apartment, and raiding an illegal gambling den. After they arrest an alleged pickpocket in a market, we see the man questioned and casually beaten, first with kicks and punches, later with a leather strap.
More surprising than the offhanded violence employed by the officers is their sheer incompetence. Although the film never spells out what differentiates the PAP from regular police, their military-style garb and an early scene in which a school principal praises their superior response time makes it clear this is an elite security unit. Despite their elevated status, as the film progresses it becomes embarrassingly evident these young men lack proper training or even an awareness of basic legalistic procedures.
Later we see the police bring in an elderly farmer caught collecting scrap without a permit, a classic example of the petty bureaucratic regulations that govern every aspect of life in China. The average person just ignores most of these rules most of the time, creating problems when the police decide to arbitrarily enforce them. The farmer’s son nicely sums up the attitude of many when the old man calls him from the station for assistance: “Fuck those fuckers!” the son explodes. “All they do is dick around… those motherfuckers!” Unfortunately for the old man, his son’s diatribe is loud enough for the officers to hear.
After showing us the bumbling pettiness of much of the officers’ work, Crime and Punishment takes a more challenging turn when a group of young farmers are caught with an illegal load of timber. After the farmers are subject to the seemingly de rigueur beatings, a pair of officers accompanies one of them back to his village to collect evidence and photograph the stumps of illegally logged trees.
In the village the officers are confronted by the man’s extended family living in a single cramped farmhouse. The suspect’s living conditions clearly touch a chord, and as they climb the hill behind the village to photograph the cut-down trees, a strange camaraderie develops between the farmer and police. “I barely made 4,000 yuan this year [less than USD 600],” the farmer explains. “I work hard all year round to send my kid to school and we’re still eating up the family savings. The house isn’t big enough – you saw it. My dad lives in that little lean-to. An old man shouldn’t have to live like that…” The officers make sympathetic noises and say they’ll ask their captain to minimize the man’s punishment.
Having established this link between the officers and the peasants they police, Zhao moves to the PAP’s annual “demobilization,” which sees many of the young recruits standing down after two years on the job. Only a handful continue to an academy where they are made into PAP officers, while the rest return to civilian life in the towns and villages they came from. One of the young recruits becomes drunk after being told he will be discharged, crying bitterly as he lays bare the corruption of the system: “If I had the 50,000 yuan to pay the bribe I know I’d get into the academy,” he says to his colleague. “History is written by the victors. If you lose you’re just a loser. But if you win, even if you win by bribes or dirty tricks, you’re the winner, you’re the man.”
Although the slim possibility of a lifetime of power and privilege is dangled in front of these young men, the majority are discarded by a system that perpetuates itself through an endless supply of eager recruits desperate to escape the impoverished conditions we’ve seen outside. There are no heroes or villains in this story, just young men caught up in a cycle that ultimately keeps most of them as powerless as the villagers they lord over.
From here Zhao cuts to the tethered dogs at the back of the station that we’ve seen fed throughout the film. As the smaller dog looks on, the larger animal is unceremoniously slaughtered with a knife to the heart. Only now does it become clear these animals are not guard dogs or even pets – they are raised by the police to be sacrificed for the pot. The scene is as unnerving as it is unexpected, and made all the more disturbing by the parallel with the young recruits’ fate.
His analogy complete, Zhao returns to the policemen’s mattresses folded in neat piles, now accompanied by the discarded insignia and caps of the demobilized recruits. As he rounds off the film’s neatly circular structure, Zhao leaves us with one final, tantalizingly open-ended image of peasants carrying household furniture across a snow-covered landscape. In the background a Christian Church dominates the scene – a sign of another power steadily growing in China’s countryside? A hint that farmers are increasingly turning to beliefs outside the morally bankrupt framework of the state? Zhao leaves us with a question rather than an answer, and an invitation to continue interrogating what we have seen after the end credits roll.
Dan Edwards writes for The Beijinger and Real Time Arts, among other publications. His own blog is Screening China.