Named after the biblical creature residing in the mountains, Chinese director Zhao Liang’s documentary film is a quiet critique of all that surrounds the production of coal and steel, from the adverse effects on people to the devastating impact on nature. Liang focuses on a Mongolian community that sees green prairies gradually blackening, forcing herds, and indeed all life, to be driven away. The filmmaker does not attempt to create a storyline and chooses not to follow any particular person’s viewpoint: he simply translates the phenomenon into poignant images of destruction. Idyllic landscapes are consumed by explosions and drilling, and the strenuous work exhausts labourers into illness.
All along, there runs a Dantesque analogy likening the workers’ reality to hell while making it understood that no paradise awaits them. The structure itself mirrors The Divine Comedy by first exploring and exposing the arduous, hellish conditions in which the miners work, then presenting a sort of purgatory that sees the workers deal with the health consequences of their labour as they also seem to contemplate their overall state. The final part shows the sadly ironic paradise that the labourers’ sacrifices result in: ghost towns brimming with modern buildings, ready to house millions, left uninhabited indefinitely. While wealth is accumulated far beyond the point of redundancy, the natural world is needlessly attacked and humans perish in the process.
Occasional surrealist touches break up the intensity of the focussed gaze that stares at labouring men with untiring eyes. The only verbal interventions come in the form of voiceover reflections adapted directly from Dante’s narrative. The socio-political critique is undeniably powerful and is presented through few, yet eloquent, details. The lack of dialogue, however, coupled with the deliberate focus on the repetitiveness of the heavy manual work, means that the scenes can seem drawn out and the tempo suspended.
Behemoth is a work in which sound plays a vital role. From the evocative soundtrack to the artificial noise of machines disturbing the majestic silence of the mountains, every sound is at the forefront and every moment of stillness contributes to creating an eerie mood. The lack of spoken words emphasises the oblivion that enshrouds this reality, even as it continues to rapidly invade vaster stretches of land and spoils everything in its wake.
Bold in its passive narration, Behemoth does not need to spell out its message in order to persuade viewers of its importance. The substance is in the facts, and Liang borrows from Dante’s poetic tone to imply that humans have created a real hell in order to attain an elusive paradise.
Behemoth is released nationwide on 19th August 2016.
Watch the trailer for Behemoth here: