‘Behemoth’ Is a Bold Depiction of Environmental Destruction in Northern China

Behemoth is a Bold Depiction of Environmental Destruction in Northern China


Behemoth is a film of enormous metaphor, which is perhaps obvious from the title. Like many artistically inclined environmentalist documentaries, it contains breathtaking landscapes and a real sense of mythological doom. “Mother Nature,” after all, is under attack.

Yet Zhao Liang takes an opposite approach here, anthropomorphizing the force of destruction rather than the spirit of the world being demolished. His behemoth is a beast that not only devours flowers and trees, but also eats mountains and shatters the earth. Images of industrial devastation are paired with even more explicitly grandiose voice over, invoking Dante’s journey into hell. Zhao walks through the “shattered earth,” guided by visions of inexorable and catastrophic change. The body of a naked man, the film’s most staged symbol of earth’s fragility, lies prone on the ground. Human weakness finds no sympathy in this landscape.

Zhao shot the film in Inner Mongolia, a remote part of Northern China where the traditional pastoral culture is being outstripped by a boom in coal mining. Shepherds graze their flocks on vast green plains that are now broken up by stretches of dead brown earth. Machines tear up the ground. Sheep munch on a slope, the other side of which is being turned over in record time. The surreal combination of these landscapes has an air of accelerated industrialization that reminds one of Danny Boyle’s whirlwind history lesson from the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics.

The difference is that Boyle’s sheep were a triumphant, fictitious distillation of a positive myth. The dramatic changes in Behemoth are all too real, and much too fast. Dump trucks drop piles and piles of earth off of the edge of a bright green hill, turning the landscape inside out one load at a time. Later, Zhao turns to metallurgical endeavors, factories where there is essentially no vegetation left and workers rake molten lave across the black ground. Not content with these already uncanny documentary images, he often disfigures them digitally, creating fractured landscapes that mimic the form of a broken mirror. In one moment he cuts to a completely black screen, an image so clogged with soot that the line between reality and cinema is lost. The same technique appears again, shortly after, with a screen made entirely red by molten metal.

Of course, there is more of a plan to these gestures than the simple production of visual chaos. Zhao begins with the extraction of resources, follows the raw material into factories, and finally turns to the enormous empty cities of China’s countryside. This structural fixation on the longterm process of production is akin to the work of Dziga Vertov, though with a very different political context. And it is because of that difference of situation that Zhao spends so much time coupling scenes of mechanized production with the human toll of this industrial system.

He pays close attention to the soot that covers the faces of workers, then watches them wash it off. He addresses the high medical risks of their work, highlighting the tremendous amount of physical exertion that goes into some of these jobs. Perhaps the best emblem of both the toil and futility involved is a man whose job is to maneuver molten metal along the ground in the factory. It’s so hot that he needs to keep hammering his rake back into shape, otherwise it will itself melt and become useless.

The absurdity of this situation underlines the power that resources and machines wield over individual workers. After a while, the dump trucks seem to become active participants in a larger organism of iron and steel, tearing apart the earth and then waiting in enormous lines to bring their quarry into the factory centers. The mood begins to resemble the futuristic unease of Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated, in which the subways of New York City seem to move of their own free will, like enormous snakes atop the metropolis.

Here the sense of alienation is even worse, for at least the subway of the 1980s was overloaded with graffiti, evidence of human expression. The final result of Behemoth’s monstrous chain of production is emptiness, towering blocks of apartments waiting for tenants that will never arrive. These ghost cities, the by-products of industrialization for its own sake, are the hideous children of the great beast. And beneath them, a handful of workers are tasked with keeping them clean. Yet without humans there is no litter, and so these custodians wander the streets collecting tumbleweeds and disposing of fallen leaves.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.