The life of a small-town policeman is an often thankless one. When they’re not dealing with petty neighbourhood disputes, people who are essentially just lonely, and acts of elaborate busywork, there’s not much else to do but wear the uniform with pride. Unfortunately, the uniform can eventually consume the person inside it, turning them into fastidious prigs obsessed with the letter of the law. Locating itself in a small town near the North Korean border, Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zuìyǔ Fá) paints an ambivalent portrait of local law enforcement, in this case operated by the Military Police who are themselves perhaps victims of the austerity of the system.
Zhao opens with a lengthy sequence of the soldier policemen meticulously folding their bedsheets into perfect squares, neatly symbolising their insistence on precision and discipline. Far from neat, however, their interactions with the locals are often messy and confused. Called out by a man with obvious mental health issues who wanted to report a murder but is discovered to have mistaken a bedsheet for a body, the pair of policemen are initially sympathetic if confused but become increasingly frustrated by his inability to acknowledge his mistake. Accusing him of drinking, they later threaten his elderly mother with wasting police time, suggesting that this sort of thing has happened before but refusing to believe that perhaps the man needs more help than they can give him, and that shouting at him to stop drinking is unlikely to have much effect.
Helping is not something they particularly see as their duty. They are, after all, here to be the face of authority, enforcing the law and keeping the locals in line. Thus they largely spend their time engaged in acts of extreme pettiness such as their dogged pursuit of an elderly man who can’t produce his permit for collecting junk. Old Wang gives them the runaround, claiming that the permits are all in order but at home, just trying to get them to give him his donkey cart so he can get back to business but the jobsworth on the desk isn’t having it. He won’t let the donkey go ’til they sort this out. No permits, no donkey. It’s then that Wang makes a strategic mistake in calling home. The jobsworth lends him a phone but on speaker, leading to a comical interlude of Wang’s presumably very young grandson screaming into the receiver before his son comes on and, not knowing he’s audible to all, says some very unkind things about policemen which don’t go down well with the guys in charge. Things aren’t looking great for Wang’s donkey, especially as his permits appear to have expired some years previously (which he blames on the permit office not sending the new documents), but by this stage all the jobsworth wants is an apology from Wang’s son for the stain on his honour as a policeman. Eventually he gets bored and lets Wang go with a warning, only for Wang to go around the corner with his donkey and immediately start collecting junk again.
This Kafka-esque futility is further rammed home when we see the police paste up a wanted sign for a suspected murderer. They set up a roadblock and earnestly question the passing cars only for one elderly gentleman to insist he doesn’t have time for this nonsense and speed off leaving the police dumbfounded and repeating his plate numbers with the intention of tracking him down later. As part of the sweep they discover a far more banal crime – three men with a pickup truck full of lumber they “found” supposedly abandoned and were hoping to sell to some guy named Wang in order to get a few extra pennies for the New Year. Eventually confessing, the ring leader is frogmarched home, allowed to remove his cuffs so as not to unduly alarm his family members, and forced to track through the mountains showing them the corpses of these illegally dismembered trees. The policemen with him are suddenly sympathetic, sorry for his obvious poverty and grateful for his co-operation (he even asks them to stay for lunch and apologises for making them tired with all this walking), offering to have a word with the chief to see if they can’t get the fine reduced. Of course, maybe that’s got something to do with his wife’s anger on noticing her husband’s swollen face and dejected expression. Her complaints about police brutality unsettle the officers so much that they overcompensate by giving the guys a token fine and letting them go home right away with all the lumber that they stole so that the families won’t kick up a fuss about the violence.
Despite the squeamishness, violence is a key tool of the military police who aren’t afraid of expressing their authority physically even knowing Zhao’s camera is capturing their every move. An old man is brought in on suspicion of stealing a mobile phone. So obsessed are they with shouting him into a confession, that it takes them a while to realise he is deaf and has a speech impediment which is why he is unable to answer their questions, but it doesn’t stop them whipping him with a belt to make him try. Eventually they have to let him go too because they don’t have an interpreter on hand and are unable to interview him or collect any evidence.
Life as a military policeman appears to be defined by tedium dressed up as correctness and punctuated by brief moments of brutality born of a desperate need to mask their sense of insignificance. They are victims of the system too. One young man who had invested everything in the dream of getting into the military academy laments that his life would be so easy if he had money for bribes and connections to hook him up, but he doesn’t so now he’s getting demobbed from the army against his will with no other choice than to go back home and live pretty much like the denizens of this tiny impoverished town where pensioners illegally hunt scrap and dejected dads steal trees to buy New Year gifts for their kids. One of the soldiers even complains that he’s losing his hair because of the stress and physical demands of the job, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an outlet for his frustrations other than taking pleasure in priggishness. A subtle and subversive condemnation of the violence embedded in the orchestration of the state, Crime and Punishment dares to suggest that its heroic policemen are little more than bumbling, self-important fools unable to think much beyond dogma, exerting authority through thuggery. Yet it is also reserves a degree of sympathy for them too, corrupt and cruel as they are, they are also products of the system that will eventually consume them.
Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival.