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.
Over a decade in the making, Petition focuses on the semipermanent citizenry who set up temporary housing in a makeshift village near the central petitioner's office. Braving inclement weather, the threat of random arrest and the vicious assaults of thugs known as "retrievers," these justice-seeking pilgrims trek daily to the agency to press their cases, seeking redress for wrongs suffered in their provincial hometowns, almost always the result of bald-faced local corruption.
Because of the camera-unfriendly policies of the Chinese government, Zhao stays largely on the outside, recording events secondhand from the petitioners' mouths. What this approach lacks in immediacy, it gains in empathy, particularly when focusing on a ridiculously determined woman who, like Richard Carstone in Dickens's Bleak House, spends decades awaiting the outcome of her hopeless case. When Zhao does manage to sneak his recording device inside the office, the results are astonishing; with a seconds-long glimpse of petitioners being dismissed with a few terse words and dragged away by police, the film effectively demonstrates how authoritarianism best thrives on a combination of Byzantine bureaucracy and systemic cruelty.