The Chinese contemporary filmmaker Zhao Liang’s latest movie Behemoth looks at the iron and coal mining industry in Inner Mongolia, a sweeping northern region of China with a population of primarily Mongols (an official ethnic minority in the country) and the Han majority.
Despite its heavy topic, the film is rife with visual splendor. Segments portray the artist lying naked in grassy fields and mountain ranges, while the unrelenting mechanics of capitalist industry sputter smoke around him. Scenes of the workers bathing, as they scrub and scrape at the metallic dust that coats their bodies, portray a pain and sacrifice that is more than just skin-deep. Zhao has described Behemoth as “closer to art than film,” and it delivers through aesthetically stimulating, raw expression.
Forgoing the conventions of documentary-style filmmaking, Zhao decides not to give any of the laborers a voice in lieu of his own narration. Zhao, who was born in Dandong, Liaoning Province and now lives in Beijing, speaks in perfect pudonghua that is not native to the region, but rather a standardized dialect imposed by a Bejing-centric government. The choice is a risky one for a film that, at first glance, gives a voice to the voiceless. Left nameless, the workers serve as actors in Zhao’s dramatic production, which tells a dark truth by reproducing many of the same power structures that dehumanize the laborers in the first place.
The script is loosely inspired by Dante’s Inferno. It is easy to imagine why the Italian novel is relevant to the workers, who are tasked with descending into a sweltering dark abyss to extract the earth’s natural resources each day. While this decision finds common ground with Western audiences, it’s only yet another instance of viewing China from a Western perspective — one that is quick to demean, infantilize, and “other” Chinese citizens as incapable of governing themselves. One precarious scene involves a family who lives in a tent with a toddler. Left naked to play in the dirt, the child is a metaphor for the worker’s existential crisis; however, there is also the dangerous potential of implicating the mother in irresponsible parenting or rendering primitive the very people who have generously allowed Zhao Liang into their lives. This imagery is especially harmful in a film that neglects to identify aspects of Chinese culture that are redeemable, aside from its scenic environment. Likewise, there is little focus on how the workers’ lives were better off before their labor was exploited.
All of this ultimately leads me to question the environmentalist bent of the movie. Is it to preserve lands for cultural tourism that both privileged Western peoples and Han Chinese audiences, including viewers of this film, already engage in? The film also serves as a way for viewers to feel better about their own situations; as Wendy Ide from The Guardian put it, “I sometimes complain about having to watch mediocre movies, but this rather puts that into perspective. At least I don’t have to chisel chunks of molten pig iron from my flesh at the end of my working day.” For a film that sets out to be socially engaged, providing soothing relief for more privileged people seems to be misaligned with its intentions.
Behemoth digs at the Chinese government’s failure to care for its laborers, who quickly develop black lung from working in a toxic environment. This theme of an inherently wicked Chinese government, aside from its pervasiveness in US news, political rhetoric, and historical narrative, is also commonly found in the work of popular Chinese artists based abroad, like Ai Weiwei, Yue Minjun, Liu Bolin, and Cui Xiuwen, as well as in critically acclaimed films like Meishi Street (2006) and Up the Yangtze (2007) — a trend rooted in a colonial past that leaves me longing for more complex perspectives. This singular, perpetuating narrative of China incubates existing xenophobia and resentment for Communism, which reaffirms the “successes” of democracy. These tired viewpoints often conveniently omit Western democracy’s own complicity in creating hazardous environments: for starters, the US’s dependency on cheap, readily available goods and American CEOs responsible for outsourcing.
Zhao’s overt critiques of the Chinese government, depicted in the way of workers carrying protest signs that identify their perpetrators, detracts from the real silent evil at play, which is the undisputed desire for Western modernism. Perhaps some might pick up on this after seeing the brief ending sequence of a ghost town built by the rural laborers, filled with colonial era-esque apartment buildings, immaculately trimmed hedges, and smoothly paved roads. Most film critics have not.
There are other artists, such as Xing Danwen in her Urban Fiction series or Cao Fei’s La Town, who assign much greater responsibility to Western forces within the damage of Chinese lands and culture. More transgressive is Steve McQueen’s earlier film Western Deep, with similar scenes of descent and darkness as metaphors for oppression without any of the decorum. Given the reality of globalized capitalism and white supremacy, the ongoing trauma to humanity, like the kind in Behemoth, is in truth neither beautiful nor entertaining.
At some points in the film, a coal miner carries a mirror upon his back, which reflects the surrounding landscape under excavation, excluding the filmmaker’s camera-holding presence. Ironically, this scene can act as a summation of the film. Zhao Liang’s gesture, though poetic, erases the awareness of our violent gazes just as much as it erases the man holding it.
Zhao Liang’s Behemoth is playing at Metrograph (7 Ludlow St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through Thursday, February 9.