This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival offered hardy viewers a somewhat gruelling pairing of back-to-back contemporary Chinese documentaries: Wang Bing’s 150-minute Ta’ang was followed by Zhao Liang’s relatively concise Behemoth. Both films offer two visions of very different humanitarian crises in China—one relating to freedom of movement, the other exploring labour conditions and environment.
Behemoth begins with a wide shot of an open-cut mine, as a blast rips through the landmass, reducing mountain to rubble. Such explosions repeat throughout the film, rattling those who may have nodded off momentarily. From this attention-grabbing prologue, Zhao, who shot the film clandestinely over a two year period, begins an eye opening tour of all levels of operation at this massive coal mine in Inner Mongolia, his poetic documentary borrows its organisation structure from Dante’s Inferno. Zhao’s handheld camera moves amongst the workers both above and beneath the earth. Soot-stained labourers manually sort through rock piles by day and night in search of coal, before it is transported to the blazing inferno of the ironworks.
Zhao’s earlier Petition, which screened at MIFF 2012, was a verité depiction of individuals with long-running civil complaints tangling with government authorities. Where that film consisted of interviews and interactions with its subjects, Zhao takes another stylistic tack altogether in Behemoth, employing an observational mode, eschewing interviews and exposition. In this regard he may be open to the charge of denying personhood to his subjects, casting him in the company of the austere Austrians Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Michael Glawogger, for whom dehumanisation is the very point. Zhao does find some common humanity in small observational moments, though, as when he regards miners sponging off their emaciated torsos in their meagre quarters, the water running black, and a moment in which a miner is spooked by a blast, and fumbles his torch.
For the most part, Zhao is painting with a much broader canvas. Preferring bold thematic juxtapositions in his imagery, he contrasts the violence of the mine with the tranquillity of the shepherds who continue to graze their family on the mine’s very edge—a glimpsed patch of green remains, and then blackened earth and yellow and red machines as far as Zhao’s panning camera can see. The goats amble down an embankment created by rows upon rows of dump trucks backing up and discarding their loads. Zhao’s film is not the first documentary to contemplate the ways of traditional Mongolian herders—Harhuu’s little-seen, similarly observational documentary A Clear Sky also chronicled the lives of such a family, similarly imperilled by an encroaching coalmine.
Zhao employs glimpses of agrarian practice to make a blunt counterpoint about the changing face of labour in China, but for the most part the goats only offer visual window-dressing. Zhao reserves more procedural detail for the mine’s operation, which is depicted with wandering handheld camera work, and inexorable pans. This latter move is one of a number of repeated structural elements that reappear, as the mine continues to expand in size throughout the film’s duration. Zhao also employs repeated point-of-view shots gazing from truck windows, Godardian full-screen colour inserts, and close up portraits of individual miners meeting the camera’s gaze directly, sometimes with suspicion or disdain, other times with a blank thousand-yard stare. These moments gain thematic resonance with each repetition. Zhao’s portraiture takes on the quality of a momento-mori when, late in the film, it turns to a group of former miners, for whom breathing itself has become an effort as pneumoconiosis takes hold.
This all sounds a little on the nose, and indeed subtlety and nuance aren’t really part of Zhao’s stylistic register. Generally, the film carries off its environmental agenda with the sheer shock and awe of its visual content, and at times it approaches the grandeur and abstraction of Werner Herzog’s early 1990s hot streak of Lessons of Darkness and Bells from the Deep. For the most part, Behemoth is wordless, and is at its best when it remains this way. Zhao’s film wobbles a little when it intermittently incorporates poetic voiceover, drawing heavily from Dante’s vision of hell. Delivered with the defamiliarised strangeness of an alien’s perspective, and accompanied by segmented images of a naked man sleeping in various positions around the mine, the artifice of these interventions actually fails to match the strangeness of the film’s unmanipulated mine visuals. Zhao more successfully incorporates inventive visual flourishes, as when he places his camera directly within a mine cart, calling to mind the perspectival surrealism of the similarly monikered Leviathan.
Behemoth bears comparison to another film at MIFF, Pietro Marcello’s Lost and Beautiful. Both titles blend documentary content with more stylised, expressionist/fantastical elements, and end on a note of wry surrealism. Behemoth’s conclusion hammers home our collective culpability in the making of modern China. At times, Zhao’s film is a little too portentous and unwieldy, just like the Biblical beast from which it takes its name. Nevertheless, Behemoth remains a visually arresting meditation on the agony of toil.