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.
Did You Know These Museums Were Free for New Yorkers?
The “Free Admission” campaign is advocating to make ticket pricing information more transparent to visitors, who may be confused or misled by institutions’ language.
AI Images Visualizing Trump’s Arrest Send Internet Into a Frenzy
The pictures, created using Midjourney, depict the former president’s greatest fantasy: being dragged away by police in front of the cameras.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Some AI Artworks Now Eligible for Copyright
New guidance from the US Copyright Office sets some policies around AI-generated images.
NYC Hispanic Society Workers to Strike Indefinitely
One worker said the museum’s “skeletal” workforce bars the institution from functioning to its potential.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
In Search of Inclusive South Asian Futurisms
We have been dangerously siloed for far too long by colonial constructs of race, nation, and time that separate, divide, and deny us our very being.
What Do Shtreimels and Cowboy Hats Have in Common?
A chance meeting on the subway introduced photographer Francesca Magnani to the multicultural world of Brooklyn milliner Richard Faison.
Nevada Museum of Art Presents Adaline Kent: The Click of Authenticity
For the first time in nearly 60 years, the innovative yet under-recognized artist is the subject of a retrospective exhibition. On view in Reno, Nevada.
Richard Hull Completes the Picture
Once known for his abstracted portraits, the Chicago artist is now exploring new directions.
You Too Can Have Your Art on a Postage Stamp
The process isn’t complicated, and thousands of people submit themselves for the talent pool every year.
The Public Theater in NYC Presents Plays for the Plague Year
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s theatrical concert chronicles the 2020 lockdown and the hope and perseverance that emerged from it.
Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor
The artist-performer’s career undulates, ever so gracefully, across multiple mediums and registers of generational pain, healing laughter, and Indigenous joy.
Rare 19th-Century Silhouette Album’s Secrets Unlocked
Traveling portrait artist William Bache’s album depicts famous figures like Thomas Jefferson as well as people whose identity was previously unknown.