HKMDB Daily News

November 13, 2009

Petition (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 3:12 pm

La cour des plaignants

(Documentary — France - China) An Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Arte (France)/3 Shadows (China) co-production, with the participation of RTBF Television Belge, YLE TV1, BBC Storyville, Television Suisse Romande, Centre National de la Cinematographie. (International sales: Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Bry-sur-Marne Cedex, France.) Produced by Sylvie Blum. Directed by Zhao Liang.

With: Zhang Weiye, Qi Huaying, Fang Xiaojuan.
(Mandarin dialogue)

A sometimes plodding but cumulatively impactful examination of human-rights abuses in China, “Petition” lobbies on behalf of those who have lobbied in vain. Debuting documaker Zhao Liang spent more than 10 years following several self-described “petitioners,” whose tireless efforts to seek justice from their government have caused them no end of grief and ostracism. While this French-Chinese co-production could benefit from a tighter trim, its journalistic acuity, emotional force and unimpeachable agenda should rally socially oriented fests and cablers seeking worthy, relevant fare. Pic also merits widespread Chinese distribution through underground channels.

An unblinking record of human suffering, the film (whose French title means “Petition: The Court of the Complainants”) essentially grants its subjects the open forum and attentive ear denied them by authorities. Like his countryman Jia Zhangke, Zhao is casting an intensely critical eye on his country in the wake of rapid industrial change and an uneasy suspension between communism and democracy, but Zhao’s methods are more straightforward than Jia’s and his anger more palpable.

Since 1996, Zhao has filmed petitioners living in squalid, makeshift homes near Beijing’s Southern Railway Station; every day, they attempt to lodge complaints at the nearby petition office, where they are met with indifference, rejection and, if necessary, physical force to remove them from the premises. Since filming is forbidden in the petition office, Zhao used hidden cameras, and his secret footage of the treatment to which petitioners are often subjected is particularly galvanizing.

Complainants include farmers thrown out of their villages by authorities in cahoots with the local mafia, and homeowners who received no compensation for the government-ordered demolition of their houses. Many have come to Beijing from all over China and endured countless abuses — imprisonment, institutionalization, beatings — for their determination to speak out in protest.

The first half of the 129-minute docu reps a numbing catalog of grievances and, while it can make for repetitive viewing, it also speaks to Zhao’s point about the incalculable toll on ordinary citizens due to systemic corruption and denial of responsibility.

Despite “Petition’s” focus on the realities of its subjects’ daily lives, few vivid personalities emerge until the second half, when the film finds its key thread: Qi Huaying, who since 1987 has sought justice on behalf of her late husband, and her daughter, Fang Xiaojuan. The patience and longevity of Zhao’s years-in-the-making approach pays off enormously here, as he follows these two very different but equally courageous women to a devastating emotional confrontation.

Rather less successfully, the film contains at least two scenes that feel unnecessarily exploitative in their attempts to crank up the drama, one of them involving a petitioner trying to flee on train tracks from government henchmen. Elsewhere, the pic allows its subjects to argue for democracy in China and express their rather remarkable pride in their country — which, as Zhao demonstrates via footage of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, seems to care more about a grandstanding display of nationalistic showmanship than about its displaced citizenry.

Tech credits are pro for this low-budget guerrilla effort. Zhao’s voice is often heard phrasing questions during interviews, while occasional intertitles serve to streamline information and provide context.

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Zhao; editors, Zhao, Shun Zi, Bruno Barwise; sound, Zhao. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 22, 2009. Running time: 129 MIN.

Petition (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 3:02 pm

Petition (La Cour Des Plaignants)
Director. Zhao Liang. France-China. 2009. 123 mins.

Even Franz Kafka would find it hard to credit the systemic injustice denounced in Petition, an angry and harrowing investigation by Chinese documentary maker and artist Zhao Liang. The film, on which Zhao has been working since 1996, looks at the world of the ‘petitioners’, people who come to Beijing from all parts of China in order to plead their case against injustices, and who find themselves embroiled in a no-exit situation which leaves them homeless, impoverished, even disabled. The film, some of it shot using a secret camera, is an exemplary piece of journalism, and will be a must for television and for festivals, especially those with human rights interests, although theatrical prospects will be limited.

The film looks at the lives of petitioners who come to Beijing to visit its Complaints Office, and who find themselves stuck there for years on end, waiting to air grievances against local abuses of justice. Obliged to wait in the city, without much hope of winning redress, complainants find themselves living in the now-demolished ‘Petition Village’, a shanty town in which poverty reigns. Despite their living conditions, the interviewees generally state their determination to stay and see their case through.

To make things worse, local authorities send their own brutal and unscrupulous representatives, known as ‘retrievers’, to Beijing to dissuade petitioners. The odds against the wronged are so overwhelmingly stacked that one can only admire the determination of the multitudes who persist in their purpose.

Often shooting with a hidden camera, Zhao films and interviews a number of people, following some over the twelve years of the shoot. In particular, providing a narrative thread of sorts, he follows Qi, a woman determined to get justice for her husband’s unexplained death in hospital. In one of the film’s most painful moments, Qi’s daughter Juan decides to leave her mother and start a new life. Her return visit a couple of years later, with a child of her own, results in a painful confrontation – one of those moments at which Zhao’s approach appears uncomfortably intrusive.

The film offers more than its share of horror. Notably, after a woman fleeing from retrievers is run over by a train, other members of the petitioner community salvage her jawbone and a fragment of scalp to use as evidence if her case comes to light. Despite their oppression and the apparent hopelessness of their situation, the petitioners appear to be a tight-knit, mutually supportive community, as well as extremely lucid about their cause and what it represents. Many of them openly voice what seems to be the film’s own unequivocal message, that the current state of corruption in China will only end when democracy comes.

In the final episodes, we see Petition Village demolished as part of the Olympics building programme, making petitioners’ living conditions even more untenable. The film’s end sequence contrasts their plight with the official image of a modern China projected by the fireworks of the Olympics opening ceremony.

The film offers no spoken commentary on events, but uses occasional captions to fill in additional background. If the situation Zhao depicts seems inexorably grim, hope is offered by the fact that he has succeeded in making this film, and by the fact that his subjects have had the courage to talk openly about their travails.

Production companies
ARTE France
Three Shadows

International sales
(33) 1 49 83 29 92

Sylvie Blum

Zhao Liang

Zhao Liang
Sylvie Blum
Shun Zi
Bruno Barwise

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South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s vampire romance “Thirst” shared the festival’s jury prize, the third-place award.

The directing award went to Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza for “Kinatay,” a harsh story centered on police inflicting bloody retribution on a prostitute who crossed them.

Chinese director Lou Ye’s “Spring Fever,” a tale of forbidden romance involving homosexual relationships, won the screenplay award for writer Feng Mei.
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Also from HKTopTen, on The City of Life and Death’s lead actress, Jiang Yiyan:

Jiang Yiyan - Why, you're talking about little ol' me?

(May 14) THE CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH premiered last week. Lead actress Jiang Yiyan came to Hong Kong to promote with director Lu Chuan. This new star from the Beijing Film Academy appeared on TVB, Cable and other media interviews. Everyone was surprised that Jiang Yiyan who played a heroic prostitute in this film was very mild mannered and quiet. RTHK Radio 5’s film program host Sze Kai Keung and Lau Shek Yin said that Jiang Yiyan opened the entire station’s men and described her as having Fan Bingbing’s feminine charm, Li Bingbing’s quick wit, Gao Yuanyuan’s sweet looks, Vicki Zhao Wei’s cleverness, and Xu Jinglei’s power of making men’s hearts pound without any word or movement. Four days after the show aired, the station received nearly 50 letters from male listeners who told Sze Kai Keung that they saw Jiang Yiyan on television and were completely under her spell. They wanted to form a fan club through RTHK Radio 5 and invite Jiang Yiyan to appear in Hong Kong again. Sze kai Keung responded that they were very busy with radio and did not have time to organize them. They could only relay their good intention to Jiang Yiyan’s manager Wang Jinghua.

Jiang Yiyan
Jiang Yiyan

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