"How many live standing up? Most are bent," declares one of the desperate complainants in Petition, among the best in an extraordinary wave of recent documentaries vividly detailing the oppression clamped upon the Chinese citizenry. But unlike others where the expression of native dissent is measured or subtextual, Zhao Liang's film etches a tableau of infuriated petitioners who've journeyed to Beijing seeking justice and found themselves ensnared in a years-long sham process of bureaucratic delay and deception that calls to mind both Kafka and Dickens's Bleak House. Armed only with grievances against local and provincial authorities, including mistrials, police beatings, home demolitions, and forced relocations, they're met in the capital with open hostility by Petition Office clerks ("Your case does not involve law—go now") and physical threats and worse from "retrievers," local government agents from their home territories on a mission to strong-arm them into abandoning their cases before their province's reputation is sullied.
Congregating around the musty Beijing South Railway Station, in cheap inns or improvised tents from which they scrounge for food during extended stays, Zhao's cross-section of petitioners includes Granny Pan, an idealistic elderly woman who disregards her son's entreaties to accept the state's indifference to her suit, taking shelter beneath bridges and huddling with other itinerants in front of an outdoor TV to watch a singer croon of "opening the gates of happiness" as New Years fireworks burst overhead; firebrands Liu and Xiao, who see reform or revolution as the only real options for redress, and are detained for "demonstrating" with a mourning banner; and a homeless teacher with little hope of having his politically motivated dismissal reversed. But the principal individual drama charts the tension between Qi, an emotionally fragile middle-aged woman whose crusade to have her husband's workplace death investigated has transformed her life into "a daily search for justice," and Juan, her homesick twentysomething daughter who finally breaks with Qi's agenda to build her own life and family. The filmmakers teeter on the brink of exploitation when Qi lashes out at them after Juan's departure, and turns to yell as they follow her running figure at length through the streets (the vérité master Frederick Wiseman would not approve). But Zhao's discernible presence, and personal engagement with his subjects, pays off; though tinged with real-life melodrama, the mother-child conflict adds an intimate turmoil to the political horror, and the pair's attempt at reconciliation suggests the tenacity of familial love under onerous circumstances.
Gathering footage of the petitioners' tumultuous yet static existence under the grimly smoggy skies of Beijing since 1996, Zhao excels at both drawing out these people's war stories—accumulating piles of meaningless "re-registration" slips from official paper pushers, being shuttled in and out of detention centers, or in the case of Qi and others, into psychiatric hospitals under dubious diagnoses and drug regimens—and grabbing often surreptitious glimpses of a one-party state's swift subjugation of the disorderly. A melee in a spartan, dimly lighted Petition Office ends with uniformed personnel dragging a suitor out the rear door; a police vehicle pulls over and a pair of men are manhandled into custody; a woman standing in a plaza pulls a package of leaflets from beneath her blouse and is escorted away before she can hand out three of them…as a cop barks, "Carry on, tourists!"
Petition culminates with the old railway hub, and the base of the petitioners' community, being razed and replaced by a shiny modern hub in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. In the shadow of Beijing's showcase via a globally televised spectacle, this documentary testifies with the voice of a woman squatting in protest on the floor of the petition center: "It's been 19 years…You'll have to shoot me first."