Lessons of Darkness: Behemoth

A scene from Zhao Liang's "Behemoth." Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Behemoth
Directed by Zhao Liang
Opens January 27 at the Metrograph

Exposing the ill effects of China’s drive to develop, the mesmerizing Behemoth, a boldly visual essay film by the political documentarian Zhao Liang, depicts the successive stages of industrial manufacture as a de facto descent into hell. Zhao (who co-wrote the film with his French producer, Sylvie Blum) observes the pulverized landscape and punishing human labor in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, first at a coal mine and then at an ironworks, before paying a late visit to the ostensible product of all that toil—a newly minted “ghost city” of sentinel apartment towers, where the only person in sight is the street cleaner spearing tumbleweeds. If Behemoth can sometimes feel all-caps didactic—Zhao himself does the only talking in the film, in a voiceover that liberally quotes from Dante—its otherworldly images nonetheless herald a major work.

A muckraker on par with his compatriot Wang Bing (whose most recent stateside release was the mental-institution opus ’Til Madness Do Us Part), Zhao dares to tread where the authorities would surely prefer that he not. (His 2009 DV doc Petition, about those who take their cases to a Beijing court of complainants, premiered at Cannes but was banned in China.) But Behemoth, which Zhao shot himself in 4K, employs an aesthetic that’s altogether higher-fi than that of his earlier features. In the film’s vivid opening, we see a quarry pit buckle under a series of blasts, leaving the dislodged rocks to suffocate under a rust-colored fume. During the voiceover interludes, Zhao fractures the picture plane into a handful of overlapping sections, an unusual prismatic technique that calls to mind the gravel-and-mirror sculptures made by Robert Smithson in the late 1960s.

This first and longest section of Behemoth contains its densest concentration of arresting and appalling visuals. Sheep graze in the bright-green pastures that happen to rim the lifeless expanse of the mine; the camera slowly pans across terrain trampled underfoot by fleets of dump trucks. When the film finally does proceed to the ironworks, the primary source of shock and awe becomes not scale so much as color and sound: At one point, the frame becomes a single red color block, as smoke, tinged by the surrounding inferno, shrouds the foreground, and an assembly-line symphony of churns and whines takes charge of the soundtrack. And throughout this boiler-room passage, Zhao returns to the watchful workers in close-up, their faces streaked with sweat and soot, reflecting back the neon glow of raked coals and smelted metal.

The panoramas of the mine might be the star of the show, but it’s in the ironworks that the movie’s all-too-real destruction myth truly takes shape. With his nightmare vision of a self-contained world licked by flames and littered with waste products, Zhao evokes—and, indeed, practically invokes—Werner Herzog’s 1992 improvised masterpiece Lessons of Darkness, a triumph of framing and footage that surveyed the Kuwaiti oil fields blazing after the first Gulf War. By the time Behemoth tours a clinic of lung-disease patients and continues on to the windswept streets of that hollowed-out satellite city (according to a title card here, one of hundreds of Chinese settlements never even settled), Zhao has indeed delivered a bounty of what Herzog himself once called “adequate images”—the rare sort of spectacle that would, as the Bavarian grandiosely but ingenuously hypothesized, reveal a civilization to itself as it truly is, and thus have the power to rescue it from extinction. Of course, Behemoth doesn’t possess the power to save us from ourselves, but it is, nonetheless, a blistering warning flare—in it, speechless men, under the command of forces well beyond the frame, toil to consolidate an empire by chipping away at its very foundation.

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