In China, there are hundreds of largely unpopulated cities. A byproduct of the country’s recklessly rapid industrialization project, which reached peak propulsion around the turn of the millennium, these cities have become an increasing liability—and in the wake of recession, the government can no longer ignore their failures. But for Zhao Liang, the country’s most polemical documentarian, there’s an even graver waste to be addressed: the ultimately pointless sacrifice of natural resources and, more disgracefully, human life.
Zhao’s Behemoth is an almost too tidy exploitation of an explicit irony: Thousands of Chinese men and women die yearly mining for iron used in the building of what are often termed gui cheng, or “ghost cities.” One shot late in the documentary even shows a tumbleweed rolling freely down a deserted street, before an attentive road worker enters the frame and corals it. Zhao may not be subtle, but for most of Behemoth, prior to its blunt yet powerful denouement, his approach is also surprisingly impressionistic.
The documentary is structured around a kind of dream-logic conceit. A naked man, who’s also our narrator, is seen sleeping peacefully, and amid various natural landscapes. The man prophecies of a “beast,” one whose awakening will decimate mountains and tear apart the land. He speaks literally of the bibilical behemoth, but of course what he really means is man. Accordingly, the visions in Zhao’s film are presented as if piped in from a mortal nightmare: apocalyptic tremors gobble up the earth, great clouds of black smoke fill the skies, and poetic musings on the damages of modernity organize the chaos around a theme of environmental awareness.
Zhao heightens the chasm between nature and industrialization by keying up the Kodachrome green of the few remaining grasslands and hillsides, giving the visual field an almost sci-fi-ish otherworldliness. And when the narrator intones, authoritatively, “This is a place that has been destroyed,” Zhao fractures the frame into symmetrical pieces, like a prism, a surreal technique that’s reminiscent of Alexander Sokurov’s fogged-over filters or the gauzy distortions of Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux.
For Zhao, the interrogation of documentary form as a means of discontented expression isn’t new. While his prior Petition, a Frederick Wiseman-like screed against the dysfunctional Chinese justice system, conveyed its socioeconomic concerns in a more traditionally observational mode, Zhao’s early shorts are filled with not only political provocations, but also aesthetic ones. Bored Youth, from 2000, follows a young man as he dispassionately destroys a building from the outside in, throwing bricks through windows and toppling walls with a crowbar. Zhao augmented the destruction by shifting the sync sound, looping it and filtering it through different effects.
Behemoth, then, is a kind of maturing of Zhao’s more visceral impulses, for better and worse. Its intimations of grace soften its didacticism, as do its intimately humanistic, eerily silent portraitures of workers in the mines, whose dejected faces speak as much volume as the detailed legal troubles explicated in Petition. The only thing missing, for a while at least, is anger—the sense of palpable rage that permeated even the procedural beats of Petition. Behemoth can occasionally seem too diffuse, which makes it one of the few films to actually gain power by telling instead of showing.
By the end, Zhao’s dreamer has drifted through the elemental turmoil of the embattled mountains to the darkness and fire deep inside their man-made mines. Finally, he arrives in the empty urban landscape of the ghost town, and in a final, stingingly sarcastic soliloquy he, and by extension Zhao, finds only hollow reward in a “paradise” forged in hell. Despite all of Behemoth’s quietude, its lasting, explicitly stated message is a loud condemnation of what Chinese civilization has wrought, and what it’s irrevocably lost.