Reviewed by: Jane Fae

"The art of Behemoth lies in the way it winds the viewer up in its quintessential narrative."

Imagine. Imagine a world in which the UK government decreed the building of a Canary Wharf style housing development somewhere out in the wilds of Norfolk. Skyscrapers. Smart shops. The works.

And then, not content with its fenland monstrosity, ordered another, for Shropshire, and another for the Forest of Dean and another and another and another. Imagine, too, that in order to create each new city, they took a mountain – a whole mountain – in deepest Wales and ground it down into its component parts, of coal, of rock, of rubble and aggregate.

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What nonsense, I hear you respond – and not just for the implausibility of the idea, but because the thought of the UK government getting its act together sufficiently to co-ordinate any infrastructure action that requires more than two days to deliver is ultimate poppycock.

Yet this is what the Chinese government did. The theory? That rural dwellers needed to move to the cities, and better, if they did so, that they occupy brand new dwellings located across the country than they be decanted directly into the slums of Shanghai or Beijing.

This is both scandal, and magnificence. The sheer scale of work involved in delivering just one such city, let alone dozens, is perfectly, beautifully captured in Zhao Liang’s Behemoth. It may seem an unpromising prospect for 90 minutes plus of viewing. A near wordless documenting of the process of creating such cities, from the initial explosion that starts the process of destroying a mountain, through to the brutal, inhumane conditions imposed on those who work below the ground in the mines, or on the surface, picking lumps of coal out of scrap heaps.

The art of Behemoth lies in the way it winds the viewer up in its quintessential narrative, which is ultimately, about the folly of human endeavour predicated on the destruction of nature. To begin with it is about the spectacle. The film progresses through a sequence of artfully framed, cleverly composed images that might almost be a series of still life photography – were they not all about destruction.

Here is a landscape bereft of human presence, as giant machines crawl hither and thither about the surface of mine-workings, cut like enormous sores into the landscape, hefting coal, dragging their hard-won stuff off to who knows where. Yet there is human presence, too, as intercut with the documentary is something more artful, surreal, political.

Here we pause to focus on a nude man lying, seemingly unconcerned, in the middle of the landscape, as voice-over intones spiritual insight and poetic pensées about life, meaning. Whatever. And here is a man, equally distinct from the main action, wandering through the terrain, carrying a mirror on his back. What does it all mean? Don't ask.

Then, slowly, the film circles in. Human lives, from the individuals driving the trucks to those confined in the lightless below-surface world jetting water into the rock, are brought into focus. And while we never learn who these people are, as individuals, a connection is gradually established to lives of grinding poverty through simple everyday actions such as eating and washing.

Over and over. Washing the grime of the monstrous workings – the Behemoth, perhaps, of the title – out of their eyes and hair and skin.

Only incidentally, at the end, does the film reveal the true cost of all this planning and digging and grafting, in cold statistics presented on-screen for deaths from pneumoconiosis – before pulling back to provide a panoramic view of one of the “ghost cities”. The point, after all, of all this pain.

Comparisons have been drawn between Behemoth and Leviathan or Workingman's Death.

Watching Behemoth, I was reminded of Koyaanisqatsi, an early attempt to document the relationship between nature and humanity while eschewing traditional explanatory tropes.

Despite its unpromising premise, an involving and interesting film.

Many thanks to the independent Broadway Cinema Letchworth, without whom this review would not have been possible. Thanks, too, to Letchworth Film Club, whose decision it was to show this film.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2018
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Everyday life in a Mongolian community turns into a Dantesque journey. Documentary.

Director: Liang Zhao

Writer: Sylvie Blum, Weiping Cui, Chinnie Ding

Year: 2015

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: China


Venice 2015
NDNF 2016

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