Political documentarian Zhao Liang draws inspiration from The Divine Comedy for this intoxicating and terrifying glimpse at the ravages wrought upon Inner Mongolia by its coal and iron industries. Beautiful grasslands are being overrun by mountains destroyed by coal mining, blackening the surrounding landscape and poisoning its people.
Behemoth tours exploding hillsides, dank mine shafts, cacophonous factories, and vacant cities, building upon Zhao’s previous exposés (2009’s Petition, 2007’s Crime and Punishment) by combining his investigative streak with a painterly vision of a social and ecological nightmare unfolding out of sight.
Mesmerizing and dreamlike in its stark birds’ eye observations of the industrial processes at work, this is a nearly silent trip into Dante’s circle of hell from one of China’s most talented filmmakers.
Official Selection, Competition, Venice Film Festival 2015
Winner of the environmental Green Drop Award, Venice Film Festival
Official Selection, Sheffield Doc/Fest2016
Official Selection, International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam
Best Documentary of 2015, Wendy Ide in Screen International
Best Documentary, Stockholm International Film Festival
Special Jury Prize, Tokyo Filmex
Zhao graduated from Luxun Fine Art Academy (Shenyang) in 1992. He supported himself as a photographer while working on his early documentaries. Zhao's 2009 documentary Petition: The Court of the Complainants premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is about aspects of the legal system in China. The film was shot over twelve years and details the plight of Chinese citizens traveling to Beijing to file complaints with the central government about local officials. After being shown in Cannes the film was banned in China. In 2011 he accepted a film from China’s Ministry of Health and shot Together, a work on the discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS in China. Criticized at the time by his peers for working for the government, Zhao’s work nevertheless ‘offers a window into hard choices that face directors as they try to carve out space for self-expression in China’s authoritarian system ‘ (The New York Times).
Behemoth is his latest film, done again outside the government approval system. It was selected in the 2015 Competition section of the Venice Film festival and was since shown in numerous festivals. It was voted best documentary of the year 2015 by Screen International.
2015 BEHEMOTH (Bēixī móshòu)
2010 TOGETHER (Zai yi qi)
2009 PETITION (Shang fang)
2007 CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Zui yu fa)
2005 RETURN TO THE BORDER (Zai jiang bian)
2001 PAPER AIRPLANES (Zhi fei ji)
2004 CITY SCENE (Changshi changjing)
2000 BORED YOUTH
2001 JERKS, DON'T SAY FUCK
Cinematography Zhao Liang
Editor Fabrice Rouaud
Music Alain Mahe-Huzi
Sound Myriam Rene & Laurent Thomas
Special Effects Eve Ramboz
Production Syvie Blum (Institut National de l'Audiovisuel)
Co-production Arte France
France, 2015, DCP, col., 95 min.
In Chinese with English subtitles
'Zhao has an incredible eye...Making reference to both the Old Testament – the beast of the title comes from the Book of Job – and to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Zhao takes a fiercely lyrical approach to the subject of industrialisation in China and the rapacious appetites that drive it. Travelling around the vast, verdant steppes of Mongolia, the film-maker discovers a paradise soon to be lost to the open cast coal mining that devours the land. Zhao juxtaposes the two worlds in arresting single shots: the frame is divided between the lush grassland that still – just – supports a nomadic community with the ugly grey scars that used to be mountains.'
Wendy Ide, The Observer
'The imagery is fantastic. An ectoplasmic moon perched on a ledge of ghostly cloud. Earth-movers dragging their primitive, unwieldy bulks like dinosaurs. A man hauling what seem logs of solid fire — it’s steel — from a furnace fit for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Ugliness and beauty.'
Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times
'Zhao Liang’s haunting documentary tessellates with Jia Zhangke’s recent films in studying the effects of China’s rapid industrialisation.'
Mike McCahill, The Guardian
'The poetry and horror of globalisation and manual labour are beautifully evoked in this haunting doc-fiction hybrid....rich, deep and eventually very moving.'
David Jenkins, Little White Lies
'...remarkable, powerful film ... a sort of ‘dream documentary’ set in this ravaged landscape but liberally inspired by Dante.'
Lee Marshall, Screen International
'Maverick indie helmer Zhao Liang continues his muckraking tour of China’s social and environmental woes with the stunningly lensed, cumulatively moving “Behemoth.” Acting as a modern-day Dante on a tour through Inner Mongolia’s coal mines and iron works, Zhao (“Together,” “Petition”) eschews narrative for an impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage, emphasizing the contrasts between rapidly dwindling green pastures and dead landscapes disemboweled by toxic mining.'
Jay Weissberg, Variety
BEST DOCUMENTARY, 2015
'The assault on China’s landscape (Inner Mongolia to be exact) by the forces of industrialisation is viewed through a poetic filter that references Dante’s Divine Comedy and photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s ‘Work’ series. Behemoth (Beixi Moshuo) makes me forever grateful I write about films for a living and don’t have to pick bits of molten pig iron out of my skin at the end of each working day.'
Wendy Ide, Screen International
'As befits its title, the director Zhao Liang’s documentary “Behemoth” is colossal in scope. Its subject is the human toll of the environmental catastrophe of large-scale Chinese industrialization. A descent into a deep subterranean mine and a series of blindingly fiery eruptions in a steel mill are matched by Zhao’s calmly furious close-ups of workers whose faces and bodies are marked by these dangerous labours. Punctuated with terrifying (albeit controlled) explosions, choking smoke storms, and impressionistic images of fractured landscapes, “Behemoth” seems to shudder with the destructive power of invisible, ubiquitous, and cruelly indifferent authority.'
Richard Brody, The New Yorker
'This momentous essay-documentary takes us to the heart of Hell, Mongolia-style…Director Liang Zhao has read Dante and sometimes reads him to us, or adapts him for his own context. He starts with Purgatory — the vast and ashen terraces of north-western China’s largest strip-mine — and then maxes out his indignation in the Inferno. Deep-shaft digging; the blaze of smelting caverns. The images are stupendous and become more so. You sit there being smoked, scorched, blasted, pyred and cindered — and often loving it.'
Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times
Behemoth is a stunning and moving denunciation of the situation in Inner Mongolia, where the mining industry is permanently changing the face of the landscape. It's as if Koyaanisqatsi had been filmed in Mordor.
John Bleasdale, Cinevue
'The movie is the latest attempt by the acclaimed filmmaker Zhao Liang to walk the line between art house cinema and didactic documentary, between the visually lush and the politically potent.'
Matt Sheehan, The Huffington Post
'Zhao Liang’s Behemoth is many things all at once: an observational documentary, an experimental ethnography, an existential essay.'
Jordan Cronk, Sight and Sound
'A chilling study of China’s current environmental malaise'
Donald Clarke, The Irish Times