A multi-hyphenate artist of a decade’s standing, Zhao Liang—not to be confused with the world’s tallest man—has recently gained international recognition alongside a cadre of intrepid independent documentarians, reflecting less-than-flattering images from inside China.
Screening at Anthology along with his latest, Zhao’s 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.
Daily chores include breaking up an illegal mah-jongg game, roughing up a deaf-mute accused pickpocket, and lording over a farmer discovered collecting scrap without a permit. The film has the expected aesthetic limitations of something shot by an unobtrusive one-man-crew, and might amount to little more than a COPS episode were it not for Zhao’s decision to fix his camera and, resultantly, our sympathy on the accused, their stubbornness emboldened by the attention.
Peasant stubbornness is the subject of Zhao’s opus, Petition (2009). Over the course of a decade, he filmed the mostly provincial claimants drawn to Beijing to address last-resort grievances, “having exhausted their local appeals,” and relocating in the process to a shantytown “Petition Village” (since bulldozed for the Olympic cleanup) that spread like a rash around the main State Bureau of Letters and Calls, where many settled for years, waiting indefinitely on a favorable word.
Zhao films the protest marches and raids by thugs hired to break petitioners, part of a routine that never changes for a veteran like Qi, discovered a decade on in seeking redress for her husband’s hastily covered-up death during a workplace medical checkup, but only succeeding in losing her daughter as well by ignoring the girl’s schooling and upbringing for an irreconcilable mission that verges on psychosis. (Zhao challenges his viewers throughout to discriminate between injustice and clinical paranoia, while observing the mutually reinforcing relationship of both.)
Zhao’s bureaucratic sinkhole recalls nothing so much as the Chancery Courts of Dickens’s Bleak House, though the comparison gives somewhat too much credit to him as an architect of story. Both of his documentaries are roughly strung-together vignettes, delivered at grinding pace. He has an eye for landscape, but his images are often most remarkable for having been captured at all.