×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Behemoth’

Zhao Liang acts as a modern-day Dante exploring Inner Mongolia’s environmental destruction by toxic mining.

With:
Narrator: Zhao Liang. (Mandarin dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4901304/reference

Maverick indie helmer Zhao Liang continues his muckraking tour of China’s social and environmental woes with the stunningly lensed, cumulatively moving “Behemoth.” Acting as a modern-day Dante on a tour through Inner Mongolia’s coal mines and iron works, Zhao (“Together,” “Petition”) eschews narrative for an impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage, emphasizing the contrasts between rapidly dwindling green pastures and dead landscapes disemboweled by toxic mining. The human toll is also here in the final sections, making starkly clear the price impoverished workers pay for back-breaking labor. Zhao’s quiet yet powerful indignation will play to the arthouse crowd, and his striking visuals should ensure that “Behemoth” receives berths beyond environmental fests.

Auds will split over whether the passages from “The Divine Comedy” excerpted here add a weight of pretension, but most will be able to compartmentalize that not-ungrounded gripe and focus on the skilled lensing and the disturbing message, which joins a growing chorus of native voices calling attention to the unbridled destruction of the country’s ecosystem. Zhao’s “Petition” and Wang Jiu-liang’s “Beijing Besieged by Waste” are but two on the documentary list, while fiction helmers have been finding plenty of fertile ground in the denuded landscapes that so often serve as the backdrop to tragedy.

The film’s first section is shot in the east, where coal mines ravage the pastoral scene, turning emerald hills into ashen pits. Ever alert to the power of juxtaposition, Zhao aims his camera at areas where the contrast between alive and dead is most glaring, as if a desiccating blight has zapped shepherds’ fields and reduced them to gray powder. Snow-white sheep perch perilously close to the gaping abyss created by Transformer-like trucks digging for an outdated carcinogen, replacing centuries of husbandry with mechanized annihilation. In his desire to contrast living creatures with motorized steel, Zhao tends to forget that mankind is also behind these robotic forces of destruction, but the visceral impact is potent, and he ensures the human element is later brought to the fore.

Next the pic moves west, to ironworks where men toil in hellish conditions. Encircled by molten metal (the air is hot enough to scald lungs) and accompanied by a deafening industrial roar, the images invoke Dante’s epic, both the eternal burn of hell and the fire-purging realm of Purgatory. The toll on the population is made clear in the next section, focusing on medical issues that include major respiratory problems and the buildup of viscous black liquid in the lungs. It’s deeply disturbing to look at some of the children here and realize that most will probably never reach 50. Some protest, but who’s listening? It’s hard to shake the thought that the Upton Sinclairs of this world can no longer make much of a difference.

The final chapter aims to demonstrate the uselessness of it all: The ghost district of Kangbashi, in Ordos City, is often held up as a prime example of China’s real-estate bubble, its eerily unused streets and row upon row of empty high-rises providing a blunt reminder of the wastefulness of the country’s mad rush toward self-destructive productivity. Billed as a worker’s paradise, the city is but another hollow promise, taunting in its gleaming modernity yet devoid of life.

“Behemoth” is unquestionably Zhao’s most accomplished film, more cohesive than “Petition” and paying greater attention to its impressive visuals, shot in 4k. Some may criticize the helmer’s reach for a blend of poetry and nonfiction: Is the nude figure of a man in various landscapes really necessary? Despite such over-arty flourishes, the lensing never fails to drive home a sense of paradise lost, furthered by images with digitally created fractured lines, which represent the disruption of nature’s gift.

Film Review: 'Behemoth'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 10, 2015. Running time: 91 MIN. (Original title: “Beixi moshuo”)

Production: (Documentary — France) An INA, Arte France production, with the participation of YLE, RTS, CNC. (International sales: INA, Paris.) Produced by Sylvie Blum. Coproducers, Martine Saada, Alex Szalat.

Crew: Directed by Zhao Liang. Written by Zhao, Sylvie Blum. Camera (color), Zhao; editor, Fabrice Rouaud; music, Huzi, Alain Mahe, Mamer; sound, Chen Yao, Hu Mengchu, Cao Rui, Li Guocheng, Myriam Rene, Laurent Thomas; visual effects, Eve Ramboz; line producer, Zhao.

With: Narrator: Zhao Liang. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne'

    Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne,' Kurosawa Screening Series

    The upcoming Beijing International Film Festival will give space to high profile Hollywood franchise movies with screenings of all films in both the “Mad Max” and “Bourne Identity” series. Classic Hollywood fare will also feature prominently in a line-up that, as usual, features an eclectic grab bag of titles. The local government-backed festival opens April [...]

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

  • Janelle Monae

    Film News Roundup: Janelle Monae to Star in Film From Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

    In today’s film news roundup, Janelle Monae will star in a Lionsgate movie, Bill Nighy joins “Emma,” and documentaries on surfer Bethany Hamilton and Asbury Park are dated. CASTINGS More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius' Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll' Janelle Monae will star in an untitled [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content