With intermittent voiceover narration loosely based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Zhao Liang’s otherwise wordless, observational documentary Behemoth straddles the poetic, the purgatorial, and the political in its representation of the coal mining industry and its noxious impact on land and bodies. In fact, the film’s thematic/visual movement begins with an ironic, hellish poetics of land; gradually encompasses the purgatorial bodies working this land; and coalesces into political outrage over the exploitation of both land and bodies in the name of national economic development and desires.
The setting is Inner Mongolia, which has been both witness and victim to the relentless coal mining that is the point of departure for the construction of modern cities in China. Zhao elaborates both the object of this witnessing and the face(s) of victims purely through the power of imagery and juxtaposition, apart from the intermittent voiceover narration. Moving from the raw, physical earth to its ‘ghostly’ transformation into empty, unused space, the result is nothing short of haunting, in its imagery and in presenting the link between body, labour, and earth as utterly distorted and exploited.
The first half of the film juxtaposes the sublime of the abject and that of the idyllic regarding the physical setting, before focusing intently on the physical bodies that populate it. To this end, Zhao presents many expansive long shots of the terrain. It is like the surface of a discovered planet, which frequently experiences explosions that puncture the land, as if due to its unique composition and temperature. The surface also exhales fumes, like one desperately gasping for air. In one breathtaking long shot and with a short tilt down of the camera, and echoing Dante’s circles of hell, the scene is of a mountain of multiple tiers of trucks and other mobile machines, zigzagging dirt pathways, and the earth being uprooted, with no humans to be seen. These hell-grey ruins of a seemingly ancient civilisation on a spent planet seem to stretch out towards the horizon and well underground in the coal mines. The perspective from inside trucks only solidifies the impression of a planet ruled by machines busy with plowing the earth and queuing endlessly along roads.
However, the voiceover narrator shares that he encounters a man carrying a mirror on his back, who becomes his guide. Doubling the camera eye, the guide walks through the landscape and through/with him we come across surreal sights that reinforce the juxtaposition of the abject-sublime and abject-idyllic, most notably a giant buddha statue perched serenely in the midst of small mounds of dirt.
Equally notable juxtapositions of the abject-sublime and abject-idyllic are shots of a shockingly green panorama with a sheepherding family and its sheep intercut with the dirt ruins and machines. But perhaps the most sobering juxtapositions are those that reveal the grassy landscape to be directly adjacent to the ruins and machines: one shot consists of the camera panning across the sheep grazing, the green marked off by growing mountains of dirt hauled and piled by trucks, an oasis in a wasteland; much later in the film, another shot shows a cemetery in the foreground while the trucks continue to slog away indifferently amongst dirt in the background, a frank representation of cause and effect. In between these two shots, the film devotes its attention to the numerous anonymous humans who breathe and work in this wastelandscape.
In such a setting, humans metamorphose into strange faceless creatures with snouts through the masks they wear. They are de-individualised as they silently work the dirt and the machines, above- and under-ground, or battle fire and steel. Yet, among the extended sequences of landscapes and machines that dominate the film’s first half, Zhao infuses the film with medium and/or close-up shots of grime-covered workers’ faces that look straight into the camera; of a man and a woman cleaning their faces and arms of dirt and dust; and later in the film, of faces and necks with sweat, smoke, and dirt carved deeply into the skin, as if the trucks had forged them there themselves; of worn, blister-filled hands or a swollen leg. Zhao’s film is thus partly an attempt to re-individualise these workers, re-humanise them, re-embody them as people and citizens instead of simply expendable, faceless labour.
But re-embodying these workers operates only on a metaphorical level compared to the reality of their bodies as a result of constant toil in the wastelandscape. A series of shots of vials of different sizes filled with black juice; a close-up of a man breathing with difficulty, then another man and another, some in the hospital, others in their homes, all looking back at the camera, point to one thing: pneumoconiosis, more informally known as black lung disease. Another carefully arranged series of shots presents the film’s only other expression of outrage outside of the film itself: a woman holding a portrait of a man who has died from black lung; a group of people gathered outside an industrial plant, with a banner and portraits of the deceased, outrage of a preternatural quiet that nevertheless speaks volumes.
Admittedly, the occasional kaleidoscopic collages of a nude body laying in a fetal position and back to the camera in various landscapes dilutes the film’s gripping visual structure; the film would be no less powerful without them. And while the intermittent voiceover narration (co-written by Zhao and producer Sylvie Blum) is no match for the sway of the film’s imagery and its arrangement, the most memorable narration comes rightly at the end: ‘All the sacrifices transmuted into steel/Are carried off to build the paradise of our desires.’ Enter a new landscape of paved roads and high-rise buildings either in the process of being constructed or newly finished, yet devoid of social bustle and bodies.
Many such ‘ghost cities’ abound in China. And though the term refers to the fact that they are unused, uninhabited, it can also refer to the countless workers who have died in the course of their construction. As the film’s most pointed, quiet scream of injustice and outrage, Zhao essentially expresses that these high-rise buildings are unofficial grave markers.
Behemoth is currently showing at selected UK cinemas from ICA.