In his stunning “Crime and Punishment,” documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang upturns the common perception that Chinese media and artists have little or no access to corridors of the military and law enforcement. At the same time, Zhao reveals a community hugging the border with North Korea where lawbreaking and extreme poverty go hand-in-hand. Rigorously observational and sometimes quite amusing when it isn’t shocking, pic further cements China’s position as a doc powerhouse, and should spark tube and cable sales in most major markets.
Zhao’s artistry is instantly apparent in a telling credits sequence that dwells on the maniacally precise way the military police, based in a frigid, unidentified mountain town, fold their bed mattresses. Nothing better conveys how the cop-soldiers (deemed by local officials as more effective than their own constabulary) strive for exactitude, no matter how pointless the activity.
Still, this law enforcement unit is sympathetically burdened with time-consuming irritations such as a mentally ill man who contacts them about a corpse in his bedroom — which, in fact, is just a clump of blankets. Libertarian-minded viewers will frown, however, at a raid on an illegal mahjong game taking place in an apartment; even in the far Chinese hinterlands, Zhao declares, the law’s heavy hand extends into folks’ private living space.
Majority of running time is devoted to two cases: First, a pickpocket is arrested after being caught ditching a cell phone at an open-air food market, and then a scrap collector is nabbed for lacking a legal permit.
Part of the fascination with both sections is that these men may be guilty (neither is formally accused or sentenced), but, innocent or not, their treatment at the hands of the militarized police is reprehensible. In no mood to rush things, Zhao patiently allows the viewer to ponder why the cops permitted him to film during extended interrogations — and worse, they’re OK with cameras running during their casual and repeated physical abuse of suspects.
Is it possible that the cops, caught up in the moment, forget the presence of Zhao’s camera? Or, is there a method to their madness, as they hope to send a message to citizens to keep in line, or else? Are their egos hurt, as when they relentlessly grill the scrap collector not about what he did, but about how his son tossed expletives at the cops?
Zhao makes no judgments, and a scene in which a cop tells a barber about his severe hair loss from job stress suggests the system victimizes the enforcers as well as the suspects.
For fans of Chinese cinema, the middle-aged pickpocket specialist could be the central character of Jia Zhangke’s first feature, “Pickpocket,” grown older if not wiser. Zhao’s eye for outdoor “movie” scenes is just as remarkable as his intense, tight interrogation sequences, particularly a funny long shot following the old scrap collector’s wife, stubbornly haranguing the cops as they trudge down a snowy trail with her husband.
A one-man band on the production side, Zhao does it all behind the camera and mic, his sharp eye and ear keen to every unexpected moment.