Shot over two years across China’s Inner Mongolia, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth provides a ring-side seat (or perhaps a helicopter-shot suspended over the operating table) to bear silent witness to the effects of rapid development, excavation, extraction, commerce, and pollution on the planet.
The film lingers, often wordlessly, on images of violent destruction and pillage; the central metaphor here is the titular Behemoth, a devourer of mountains, "an enormous evil energy," according to the director's statement. A line of trucks and diggers become "the monster's playthings;" tunnels and tubes and trolley-tracks slowly siphon away the very core of the earth, feeding its ceaseless hunger.
Yet rather than focus close-in on the maw of this insatiable beast, Zhao places his lens at a quiet and safe remove. The effect, however, is not to deliver security, but instead to emphasize scale, an even more distressing aspect of the devastation shown. One explosion may be terrifying, but a relentless series of detonations over thousands of acres becomes almost mundane, a banality of evil. The very vastness inures us to the horror of watching a valley turned into a wasteland, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. (Appropriately, when humans are shown in the film, their affect is a quiet, sad boredom, not fear or terror.)
The setting becomes the real focal point: this is a story of a primal and seemingly eternal landscape, charted ages ago by the film's other literary inspiration: Dante's Divine Comedy. Hell is seen in the inferno of molten iron and smoldering slag; Purgatory in the obscuring, ever-present gray construction dust; and even Paradise is found empty and abandoned in the bleak ghost city of Ordos, built to house over one-million people but never inhabited.
These disturbed landscapes represent the other side of the coin (or perhaps of the planet) of our global economic reality; for every manufacturing job "lost to China," there is another pit mine, a slag heap, or a case of black lung in the name of modernization and progress.
Yet despite what these locations represent—a fallen status, neither classic nor modern, neither natural nor civilized—Zhao spies the beauty in the ruin. Like the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, (who also documents the environmental destruction wrought by China's long march) each shot is perfectly composed, delicately balanced, and artfully framed. Similarly, the pacing establishes the proper mood and mindset: slow, thoughtful, meditative, without the rush to interpretation or judgment.
Viewers familiar with Zhao's previous films will recognize the director's remarkable ability to focus on the unwatchable: in Petition (2009), he traces the slow, dangerous, and often brutal paths of the thousands of Chinese citizens who flock to the nation's capital to file grievances against corrupt local actions: not pretty, but certainly real and important; his previous documentary film, Crime and Punishment (2007) features surprisingly similar scenes of bureaucratic cruelty along the Chinese border with North Korea. More recently, his most official film, Together (2010, funded by the Chinese Ministry of Health) illuminated the stories of HIV patients, a hidden suffering that many in the country would prefer to ignore.
A common theme emerges: where others would cut or turn away, Zhao's camera lingers, staring long enough for our uncomfortable minds to move past fear and disgust, through fascination and prurience, to finally probe and reflect the all-too-human meaning of the violence and sorrow that we see; he is a master at cultivating unblinking empathy. In Behemoth, we see this master at the top of his game.
The result is an impressive film worthy of repeated viewings on a true large screen, which may be difficult given the limited release schedule. Fortunately, so haunting and poetic are Zhao's images that once seen, they are likely to lodge deep in the psyche of the viewer, to be later excavated and re-examined in dreams.