Bēixī Móshòu (Behemoth)

This Chinese documentary/art film by Zhao Liang addresses the large-scale environmental destruction and landscape alteration that is currently taking place in Inner Mongolia, showing the work carried out at huge mines and smelting plants as well as the wide-ranging costs and effects that heavy industry is having on the area and its people. It’s a quiet, slow film – Zhao lets his striking images do the talking, for the most part – and it focuses on several different conneccted issues: first the changing of the landscape through explosions and other mining activities; second the displacement of farmers and others who have relied on the land for their livelihoods for many years; third the conditions that the workers in these giant mines must endure on a daily basis; and fourth the physical toll the work takes on them, with many young men and women eventually succumbing to respiratory illnesses and worse. There is beautiful photography of the landscape, as well as the occasional smoky, hellish image of men working near molten material or struggling to operate in other hot, dusty areas, while Zhao also studiously films the sweaty, exhausted faces and ravaged bodies of miners and other workers in close-up. Juxtaposed with these are calmer, more distant shots in which a naked figure appears in the foetus position somewhere in the landscape, while the image fragments like a cracked mirror and a voiceover discusses the land in a solemn, poetic fashion; other figures occasionally appear with a mirror strapped to their backs, in which the filmmaker is briefly glimpsed. These elements add a little mystery, but the overall message is clear: the working conditions are unacceptably poor and the extent of the mining operations can be described as callous or unnecessarily rapacious at best. Zhao ends proceedings by filming guerrilla-style in one of China’s many ‘ghost cities‘, evidently perplexed and concerned about the Chinese government’s plans to move hundreds of millions of countryside inhabitants into its many brand-new urban areas. For what reason, and at what cost? The combination of stylish photography with the industrial subject matter recalls Jennifer Baichwal’s collaborative film with photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, though there is greater empathy with workers here and more of an emphasis on social issues.

Directed by: Zhao Liang.
Written by: Sylvie Blum, Zhao Liang, Weiping Cui, Chinnie Ding.
Cinematography: Zhao Liang.
Editing: Fabrice Rouaud.
Music: Huzi, Alain Mahé.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Year: 2016.