Zhao Liang’s Behemoth: Ecoart’s Ironic Paradise
Zhao Liang’s documentary art film, Behemoth (悲兮魔兽), opens with a slow and blank shot of an empty, open-pit iron mine, a massive crater of dirt in the dry steppeland of Inner Mongolia. Time passes; an audience accustoms itself to the blankness of the screen, and the land. And then an explosion at the lower right, intended to shake loose a new section of ore, expels a shower of dirt, and sound, and motion. The scene shifts: another explosion, closer and centred in the screen; and then another. And then another shift, to a close-up shot of a dynamite blast, as if from the inside: chunks of dirt twirl in slow motion past the vantage point. This is when we are given the title card, and its biblical allusion: 上帝在第五日创造了比蒙巨兽。它是陆地上最大的生物，每日吞噬一千座山峰。“God created the beast Behemoth on the fifth day. It was the largest monster on earth. A thousand mountains yielded food for him.”1
The tension between explosive force and an overlaid flat and silent experiential plane is key to the aesthetic dynamics of the film, a visceral examination of the monstrous damage inflicted on landscapes and on humans by large-scale mining operations. Zhao’s previous documentaries, such as Together (在一起, 2010) and Petition (上访, 2009), dissected exploitation and injustice through extensive direct interviews with those affected by AIDS or bureaucratic injustices, in a vérité style. Such work has reasonably been described as “a frontal, demonstrative, and unaestheticized ‘activist-exposé mode’ of filming” (Li 2010, 39), and those films’ stylistic difference from Behemoth is stark. During the process of filming the latter, Zhao also conducted extensive interviews with miners from various iron and coal mines in Inner Mongolia. However, during the editing process, he decided to make a radical stylistic break with his past practice, eliminating all voices but the narrator’s from the cut. We see the bodies of miners, see their darkened faces looking into the camera following a shift, watch them breathe from oxygen tanks in the hospital. But they are made into visual entities, mute as the ruined landscape. The result is no longer documentary reportage but an art film constructed out of the materials of documentary.
This is not a technique original to Zhao. As Kiki Tianqi Yu (2019) has argued, the “essay film” style of art cinema was developed by mid-twentieth-century French movements, and is known among Chinese filmmakers as “image-writing” (影像写作, yingxiang xiezuo). Yu also suggests that Behemoth in particular has aesthetic affinities to traditional Chinese essay genres. However, according to Zhao himself, the primary influence between his aesthetic shift is not past cinematic or literary practice, but his own attempt to bring more of the feel of video art into a cinematic production:
I find the conventional documentary filmmaking and its linear form limiting. It doesn’t satisfy what I crave in filmmaking anymore. When people watch a documentary, they tend to have certain expectations. It is constraining. When I work on a video installation for a gallery space, it is relaxing and I feel more at liberty with the material. I wanted to combine the two. So it means experimentation of some kind in the film, and introducing some aesthetic interest from contemporary art, in terms of perception and understanding of art. I do find contemporary art nourishing in this respect. I don’t want to limit myself to the documentary perspective.(Lu 2015, 96)
Paola Voci’s (2010) assessment of the aesthetics of Zhao’s video art also holds up for Behemoth: “Subjectivity here defines authenticity, rather than negotiates with it. Unlike the documentarian described by Joris Ivens who, standing in the middle of reality, ‘[a]t every occasion, only chooses to interpret part of that reality,’ Zhao clearly manipulates reality to show its hidden, true meaning” (111).
Throughout that film, the manipulation of the reality of industrial mining takes the form of a re-enactment of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and most of the narrator’s occasional commentary consists of rewritten versions of the poem.2 After the opening credits, we are given a series of shots of hellish pits, from which thick smokes arise. A voice then intones a revised version of the first canto of the Inferno:
Midway on our life’s journey, I seem to have had a dream. In the dream, I was suddenly awoken by the sound of heavy explosions. I open my eyes onto a boundless smoky haze. The smouldering ground beneath my feet makes me feel I am in some dark, desolate place. Only looking all around me do I discover I have arrived at the pit’s edge of the inferno. This is a place that has been destroyed. Once upon a time, it gushed with mountain springs and was lush with vegetation. Now not a blade of grass survives, a land of deathly silence. There, I meet a guide, burdened with a heavy portrait of the dead, walking, weary from his dusty journey. The mountain he comes from offers no path to paradise. He does not know how to write poetry, yet the eloquence his heart exhales is no less powerful than the Divine Comedy.3
The “guide” is a mine worker in the place of Vergil, carrying a mirror on his back, in which we see reflections of the sky. Throughout the remainder of the film, further quotations from Dante are spliced in among the mute spectacles of above-ground mine work, below-ground mine work, dormitories, smelting pits, and hospital wards. Every recitation of Dante is overlaid upon a simple shot of the ruined landscape, in which splices to the picture have split the frame into dislocated shards, mimicking and sometimes overlaying the deep, clifflike cuts through geological strata within the mine walls. During these scenes, a lone male figure lies naked on the dirt of the foreground space, curled into fetal position, unmoving. The figure is played by Zhao’s sound tech,4 but he represents the Dantean narrator, viewed naked as if from a divine perspective, stripped of everything: technology, clothes, motion (Zhao 2020). The Dantean narrator has become an everyman: lost in the middle of a life’s journey, suddenly surrounded by the walls of smoking pits.
Many of the more panoramic shots of open-pit mines are constructed looking out towards the lip of the mine area, from grassy sections of the steppe. In the foreground is life: greenery, human observers, sheep. In the background: dirt, rock, machinery, smoke, the echoes of motors. This composition was necessitated by the conditions of filming: Zhao’s camera could be set up most easily for such shots from the outside of the minelands, looking in towards the industrial areas. But the resulting compositions fit a striking pattern. Foregrounded life appears on the bottom of the screen, often the bottom third. The top two-thirds are occupied by the space of lifeless and mechanized land, seemingly pressing on and weighing down the space of green nature: a visual suffocation.
Throughout the film, we oscillate between images of landscape, human, and machine. The machines rumble, and the landscape is overlaid with the whistling of wind past Zhao’s sound equipment. The humans remain mute: they are left as the unspeaking subalterns of this story. The lone instance of human language that we are offered from the workers over the whole film is a single character, 忍 (“endure”), written as a reminder and self-command on the wall beside the top bunk in a workers’ dormitory. We are never told anything else of their feelings or their thoughts—only shown what it is that they must endure. We see them at home: dirty dormitories, small concrete houses, patched yurts. At work they labour directly on the dirt with ancient hand tools, at the control panels of large industrial earth-movers, beside smelters pouring forth streams of steel. We are shown their faces, unwashed, in close-up. We see them hospitalized with lung disease. There is an uncomfortable politics to this approach: Zhao’s choice to cut his interviews from the final edit renders these humans silent models in a tableau vivant of industrial exploitation. It is a choice made more remarkable by his stylistic turn away from the vérité reportage of his earlier work: as Dan Edwards (2015, 141–52) has argued, Petition and Paper Airplane (纸飞机, 2001) draw a considerable amount of their aesthetic power from the ethical entanglement of Zhao in the lives of his interview subjects, to the point where the presence of the camera in the story becomes a vehicle for cruelty. In Behemoth, there is no engagement, only a pornography of exploitation, more prurient than sex work: the film privileges its audiences as spectators of degradation. But this is a cost of Zhao’s formal innovation that must be paid: his is an art that must refuse to transmit voices, as it argues that only machines have the right to be heard in this hushed landscape.
And the spectator’s privileged position as a presumably urban and post-industrial viewer of art film is itself ultimately called in to question. The film ends with a visit to a mock-Dantean Paradiso: Ordos, Inner Monglolia.5 Ordos New City is the most egregious example of China’s contemporary “ghost cities”: built during a real-estate bubble as investment vehicles, but never occupied, Ordos features mile after mile of unoccupied high-rise apartments. Zhao’s narrator has followed the track of the smelted steel there, to its apotheosis in the empty towers—a place of cleanliness, peace, and quiet. Or, more accurately, a place of blankness and silence, “pitiful urban lacunae,” in the words of one original reviewer (Marsh 2017). From those lacunae, the narrator states, 然而，这不是一个梦。这是我们。我们就是那魔兽，那魔兽的爪牙。 (“And yet, this is no dream. This is who we are. We are that monster, the monster minions.”) This is not the kind of urban space from which most audiences will watch Behemoth, but it is a closing statement that reminds elites that we are implicated in the system of industrial capitalism that delivers us our comfortable living spaces. Voices of the miners and millworkers have been deleted from the film; they have also been deleted from the lives of most residents of the global metropole.
However, in that respect, the use of voiceless workers as material for art is no different from the relationship of either art or industrial capitalism to the natural world. Modern ecocriticism, from its origins in the 1970s, has learned to make long-overdue criticisms of the anthropocentric character of many traditional cultures; but there is as yet no reliable methodology to let natural subalterns “speak” in a way that can be easily translated into the forms of either art or criticism. Although this seems not to have been Zhao Liang’s primary intention, as a work of ecocritical art, Behemoth centres choices about what and whom can be appropriated for whose use. Zhao’s aesthetically-attuned lens, along with his staged nakedness, Dantean narration, and meticulous editing, captures both the landscape and its inhabitants, and converts them into a form of quiet and empty urban art, not unlike the unoccupied investment-driven ghost city of Ordos.
Zhao (2020) has said that he is driven as an artist to bear witness but does not think that art can effect social or political change. Behemoth has not put an end to strip-mining in Inner Mongolia, but it is up to audiences to choose whether the witness it bears will be fruitful. The film’s re-enactment in art of industrial capitalism’s capturing of natural resources for the use of urban elites is not a form of hypocrisy—the camera does not destroy the land or lives it observes. But the highly aestheticized form, as much as the content, reminds us that we are implicated in the system that it presents to us. We are free to decide if a globally metropolitan Paradiso, from which subnational Infernos are only distantly visible, can be stable, rather than merely static.
- Not a direct biblical quotation, this epigraph can be considered a loose rewriting of Job 40. ↩
- In several interviews, Zhao has noted that the connection of the hellish landscapes to Dante was suggested by his French producer, Sylvie Blum; he then read through the Divine Comedy while driving across Inner Mongolia between filming locations. See Lu (2015, 96), for example. ↩
- This quotation is reproduced in both original Chinese and English subtitles used in international release. There is a mismatch in the translation: the “heavy portrait of the dead” is in fact a “broken mirror” (破碎的镜像). However, Zhao has confirmed in a private interview that he did indeed originally conceive of the mirror as a kind of funeral portrait (Zoom interview with Daniel Fried and Lisa Claypool, October 12, 2020). ↩
- This role is uncredited in the film, but Zhao revealed his identity during a 2016 interview at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (ICA, 2016). ↩
- Zhao has noted that “Ordos” means “the palace in heaven” in Mongolian (Lu 2015, 96). ↩
- Edwards, Dan. 2015. Independent Chinese Documentary : Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- ICA. 2016. “Frames of Representation: Behemoth (Bei xi mo shou) Q&A.” YouTube video, uploaded September 14, 2016. https://youtu.be/F_uLfgVWaFE.
- Li, Jie. 2010. “Filming Power and the Powerless:” Zhao Liang’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ (2007) and Petition (2009).” China Perspectives 1 (81): 35–45. https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.5053.
- Lu, Yangqiao. 2015. “Zhao Liang.” Brooklyn Rail, October 2015, 96–97. EBSCOhost.
- Marsh, Calum. 2017. “Zhao Liang Finds the Poetry—and Pain—in Inner Mongolia’s Coal Mines.” Village Voice, January 23, 2017. https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/01/23/zhao-liang-finds-the-poetry-and-pain-in-inner-mongolias-coal-mines/.
- Voci, Paola. 2010. “Blowup Beijing: The City as a Twilight Zone.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement : For the Public Record, edited by Lisa Rofel, Xinyu Lü, and Chris Berry, 99–115. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
- Yu, Kiki Tianqi. 2019. “‘Image-Writing’: The Essayistic/Sanwen in Chinese Nonfiction Cinema and Zhao Liang’s Behemoth.” In World Cinema and the Essay Film: Transnational Perspectives on a Global Practice. Edited by Brenda Hollweg and Igor Krstić, 172–90. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Zhao Liang. 2020. Interview with Daniel Fried and Lisa Claypool (Zoom). October 12, 2020.