To call this film poem a documentary is surely inadequate.




To watch Behemoth is to witness an extraordinary transformation, one that could only have been achieved by a great artist. That artist is the Chinese director Zhao Liang, a documentarian whose work is new to me although I am told that this new film of his takes him in a different direction from his earlier and more traditional documentaries. The fact is that even though this is a work dealing in actuality it could more relevantly be described as a kind of film poem. To take that step involves  a degree of transformation in itself, but Zhao goes much further than that, the crucial act here being to convert specific real life events into a poetic statement that is altogether wider in its meaning and its relevance.


What we see is what is taking place now in Inner Mongolia in an area where industry - which is to say mining and steel works - has converted grasslands suited to sheep farming into the harshest of landscapes.  When one looks at the workers there one sees how the process has also rendered their lives into nothing more than bare existence. The fact that dust from the iron mines constantly settles on all those around is merely an outward sign of a lifestyle in which demeaning labour denies any living worthy of the name.


Behemoth illustrates vividly what man is doing to the environment, a ruination of the natural world in one particular place, but as the very title indicates Zhao’s film looks beyond that. In calling it Behemoth Zhao invokes an Old Testament monster and sees the mining industry of today as its equivalent. Like the painter Hieronymus Bosch, he portrays hell and, denying speech to the workers and their families whose faces are eloquent, he turns to Dante basing the film’s philosophical commentary in a loose way on The Divine Comedy and showing life as an Inferno. It makes for astonishing viewing and this is, indeed, a film that demands to be seen on the big screen in a cinema.


Part of Zhao’s artistry lies in the perfect compositions, but there is an equally astute use of sound ranging from music of various kinds to silence by way of natural sounds including the massive explosions that the work in the area entails. The words (with subtitles wisely limited to the lower right hand portion of the screen so as not to distract from the visuals) include a reference to life’s greatest sorrow existing when there is still desire, but desire that exists without hope. Right down to a stunning last shot (one set in an unoccupied ghost city of skyscrapers that does indeed exist and which represents sardonically a view of Paradise born of the Hell that we have witnessed), the film’s sustained lament is a cry of utter desolation in the face of people and places despoiled.The uncompromising style adopted inevitably yields a film that some people will find hard to take (watching it is a wondrous experience but also an arduous one). But, in the very best sense of the term, Behemoth represents Art with a capital A.                  




Featuring the inhabitants of Mongolia. 


Dir Zhao Liang, Pro Sylvie Blum, Written by Zhao Liang and Sylvie Blum based on The Divine Comedy by Dante, Ph Zhao Liang, Ed Fabrice Rouaud, Music Alain Mahe and Huzi. 

ARTE France/INA/yleRadio Télévision Suisse-New Wave Films/ICA.
95 mins. France/Finland/Switzerland/The Netherlands/Hong Kong/South Korea. 2015. Rel: 19 August 2016. No Cert