Behemoth review: a chilling study of China’s current environmental malaise

Despite some unnecessary poetic flourishes, Zhao Liang film is a striking study of a country caught between tradidion and industrial modernity

“A striking study of a hidden hell”: a scene from Zhao Liang’s Behemoth

Film Title: Behemoth

Director: Zhao Liang

Starring:

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 91 min

Wed, Aug 17, 2016, 17:28

   

Zhao Liang is not the first documentarian to follow a product from raw discovery through processing to its end use. But his study of China’s current environmental malaise gains potency from the realisation that so much is still in angry flux.

This is a film about post-industrial society that is, paradoxically, still suffering through an industrial revolution. The film’s most striking scenes show huge mines rubbing up against stretches of green where shepherds mind their flocks as they have done since the Stone Age.

At the other end of the chain, iron and coal helps build huge ghost cities - box-fresh and boxy - where traffic lights flash pointlessly in streets that have yet to welcome cars. The film makes ironic allusion to Dante’s Inferno and sees this as its version of Heaven. Lowering the tone just a little, we will nod to Talking Heads’ assertion that “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”.

Zhao’s images are elegantly composed, terrifyingly beautiful and clear in their didactic purpose. The yawning, sharply clean caverns of our eventual destination contrast starkly with the confined spaces within which poorly paid workers boil noodles before re-entering the searing blast furnaces. We see a man riding a motorbike while his pillion passenger holds his intravenous drip carefully. They are on their way to protest against the state’s mistreatment of workers.

Zhao finds wonder in the sheer scale of the enterprise. Nothing in Behmoth (well-named) is so striking as the enormous line of lorries queuing up to deliver ore to the steel works. Another film would have pointed out that we are watching the process by which European steel industries have been decimated, but the director has time only for China’s discontents.

Operating his own camera, working with the experienced French editor Fabrice Rouaud, Zhao has composed a sub-film that required no commentary or contextualisation. Unfortunately, that is what the completed work eventually got. The poetic editorialising is unnecessary and crude. Shots of a man carrying a mirror on his back - pointing to the past, you see - suggest nothing so much as an Anton Corbijn video for Depeche Mode. The repeated images of a curled, naked body lying within a shattered screen are scarcely any subtler.

Shake those off, however, and you have a striking study of a hidden hell. To be seen.