October 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Federico Barni reviews Zhao Liang's observational documentary and portrait of modern China, 'Behemoth'.

Behemoth posterBehemoth (Bei xi mo shou) by Zhao Liang. Duration: 95 mins. Rating: 4.5 / 5.

The inherent tensions between Chinese national ideology and the country’s newfound global economic stature have materialised in non-fiction films frequently and in various forms. The derelict factories of Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2003), the Three Gorges Dam in Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2007) and the annual migration of workers in Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009) are all portrayed as ambiguous monuments to the impact left by consumer capitalism on the working class of China. Zhao Liang’s latest documentary epic could be seen as the latest instalment in this series of timely filmic critiques, but the masterfulness with which its images and sounds immortalise this contemporary struggle will undoubtedly resonate, move and enchant for a long time to come.

The human consequences of China’s ruthless mobilisation of resources and workforce are instantly laid bare by a series of staggering images that depict a country devouring itself in the search for coal and steel. These images, whose compositional excellence probably owes much to Liang’s origins as a photographer, depict beautiful Inner Mongolian landscapes as they are turned from green to black by the relentless expansion of open cast mines. When we zoom into detail, the representation of workers and their labour presents portrait-like qualities, not only as a consequences of the film’s prevailing direct cinema aesthetic but also because of the emphasis given to their bodily presence and experiences. Burnt skins, scarred limbs and laboured breathing come to signify more than any line of dialogue could have, and the framing of these fragile, mute figures at work in the midst of these unearthly environments paints a devastatingly exhaustive picture of alienation.

man's face covered in coal

Whilst the biblical title, the denial of communication and the focus on the sensorial aspects of industrial work might call to mind Lucien Castaign-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), Behemoth is an entirely different beast and that is mainly because of the resounding quality of Liang’s authorial voice. If Leviathan is an unbridled creature of the sea, whose unshakeable faith in reality allows beauty to emerge from the chaos by its own means, Behemoth is a carefully assembled colossus, impeccably constructed by its author to suggestively convey a simple yet poignant political message. The clinical precision of the sound design exemplifies this; unnecessary sonic cues are silenced to let the foley work single out specific aspects of the industrial clatter. Elsewhere, it clarifies the meaning of certain moments of introspection, such as when a man’s picking of his calloused hands resonates more than it should.

mountain being blown up

However, the most evident contribution that the author brings to the film is its poetry, developed with the aid of a narration rich with epic undertones that references both biblical mythology and Dante’s Inferno. As bulldozers seen from an aerial point of view are described as evil machines carrying out invisible orders from above, the sinister masterplan behind these industrial routines truly feels exposed in a chilling manner. At times, the visibility of the authorial voice seems to exceed its usefulness. The frequent insertion of a naked fictional figure within the alien landscapes adds little to the images, and seeing a plant reflected in a moving mirror within a desolate forest of newly built but unoccupied high-rises (the end result of the exploitation portrayed), force us to try and find further symbolism in what already is an arresting sight. But for the most part, Liang’s aesthetic choices, like that of slowly fading into a foundry scene from a bright red screen, immanently place the viewer together with the worker in the midst of a hell of heat and noise. And it is this remarkable sensibility, helped by the impressive intimacy obtained in spite of the guerrilla-filming conditions and a sparse but appropriate use of unpredictable music, that transforms a series of visually remarkable situations into a masterwork of filmmaking.

Images: Behemoth film posterChinese worker, mining scene from Zhao Liang at nytimes.com

Behemoth was previously available to view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Available now to watch via Lovefilm.com or to pre-order on Amazon.

Federico Barni is studying for an MSc in Science Media Production.