Behemoth (2015)

Review #1,501

Director:  Zhao Liang
Plot:  Under the sun, the heavenly beauty of grasslands will soon be covered by the raging dust of mines.  In the moonlight, iron mines are brightly lit throughout the night.  Workers who operate the drilling machines must stay awake. The fight is tortuous, against the machine and against themselves.  In the hospital, time hangs heavy on the miners' hands.  After decades of breathing coal dust, death is just around the corner.  They are living the reality of purgatory, but there will be no paradise.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won Green Drop Award, SIGNIS Award, and nominated for Golden Lion (Venice)
Runtime:  91 mins
Rating:  PG for brief nudity
International Sales:  INA

This is one of the most frightening documentaries that I have ever seen, and it doesn’t need any narration or talking heads to tell the story.  Instead, director Zhao Liang, one of China’s most accomplished independent documentary filmmakers, purely lets his images do the speaking in this stunning ‘silent’ film (with some poetic texts that appear sporadically on screen) shot with 4K cameras.  

With one heartbreaking image after another, the film’s sullen beauty captures visually what it wants to say thematically, which is the ecological ravage caused by coal mining in China, in particular the Inner Mongolia region, where the landscape of green is fast becoming grey and populated by machines. From extreme wide shots, images of an endless convoy of trucks snaking their way up and down the mountainous region seem breathtaking, but we must not forget that there are men operating these machines.  

At least they are truck drivers.  Some others aren’t as fortunate, having to work in underground mines—in one sequence, Zhao takes us so deep within the earth that one can feel the claustrophobia and danger; or baking themselves in unbearable heat mining molten iron ores.  I think it is not a stretch to say that these men, toiling for the industrial and economic development of their country, are heroes.  But are their efforts worth the sacrifice, with most facing premature death from pneumoconiosis?

In a way Behemoth could be a companion piece to Taiwan’s Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (2013), by the late Chi Po-lin, an incredible documentary shot entirely from the sky that also centers on Man’s role in the degradation of his environment.  While Chi’s flighty work, backed by narration by the great Wu Nien-Jen, feels like an angel on wings in what is overall a more optimistic film, Zhao’s piece is heavier and perhaps more devastating.  

A winner of multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival, Behemoth could be the director’s most accomplished film to date, after showing his socio-political leanings with Crime and Punishment (2007) and Petition (2009).  His works suffer from the authorities’ clamp down on films that paint an abysmal picture of China.  Despite this, he and his fellow compatriots, continue to make some of the most biting and important documentaries of the decade.  Behemoth is one of this movement’s crowning glories.     

Verdict:  Zhao’s ‘silent’ documentary about the ecological ravages of mining in China—where the incredible images speak to us with sullen beauty—is also an elegy for the fragility of men as they toil in hell.




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