Movie Pick of the Week


Director: Zhao Liang

Year of release: 2017

Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes

Zhao Liang's Behemoth is a work of stunning power and socioeconomic specificity examining both the dehumanizing effects of industrialization in China as well as the human cost. At face value, it's a polemical documentary about Chinese men and women toiling year after years (and oftentimes dying) in coal mines in order to build "ghost cities", but Zhao's style is much too impressionistic to engender didacticism. Instead, Behemoth is structured around a naked wandering man (who becomes our Virgil-like guide in Dante's Divine Comedy mode) as he sleeps and gazes out toward natural landscapes, juxtaposed with scenes of nameless workers slaving away inside coal mines. As per the film's title, the volcanic heat arising from such working conditions takes on an almost apocalyptic irony; as this hellish existence is all meant to stabilize an industrialized city no one can actually afford to live in.

Using striking closeups of the ash-caked faces and a fractured lensing during the narrator sequences, Zhao's picture ultimately takes on the feeling of hopeless resignation rather than anger. It's vision of rapid modernization at the expense of humanity which is unfortunately all too common, and yet, Behemoth is almost certainly a condemnation of modern Chinese society. As such, we are left to feel disturbed at the sight of the immaculately designed ghost city near the climax as well as to marvel at it. As the narrator wanders through empty streets as skyscrapers tower majestically above him, his acceptance of this paradise built by human blood and fire is a devastating statement, made all the more sobering by just how quiet these final moments are. As a piece of filmmaking, Behemoth is also devastating and sobering, offering us a visual lesson in guerilla-style formalism as well as a reminder of how environmental decay aligns with human loss.