Film Review | Behemoth Documents the Destruction of Industrialisation In Modern China

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth is less a fact based documentary on its subject, then a poetic meditation. Beginning with a portion of a mountain being blown-up, the film details the destruction of Mongolian grasslands by coal mining companies. It analyses the effects this industrialisation has on the earth, the local farmers who have become displaced and the Chinese migrant workers who become ill extracting rock from the mountain.

Behemoth, shot in 4k, looks absolutely breath-taking. Whether it’s the vast and sublime overhead shots of Inner Mongolia (which remind of Zhang Yimou’s Blood Simple remake), the camera on horse-back following another rider or the incredible footage of the migrants working in life-threatening conditions – Liang’s work is astounding visually. It’s truly cinematic because, aside from the ending (which jars slightly for this reason), the documentary doesn’t rely on statistics to convey information. Like Mad Max: Fury Road (with which Behemoth shares a red, barren and de-populated setting), it tells its story almost entirely through imagery. It’s incredible how Liang and his crew managed to shoot their subjects from such a close proximity. During the section of the movie within the coal extracting plant, the screen is almost entirely engulfed by molten, orange sparks and flames (the air is hot enough to scald lungs). The film’s narrator, at times, quotes from passages of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. These industrial scenes signify the writer’s depiction of hell; which Liang’s crew manage to capture on camera effortlessly.

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The film is less successful in terms of its narration. While the opening passages are beautiful, as it continues the words become less hypnotic than dull and pretentious. This increasing sense of tedium isn’t helped by Behemoth’s over-long running time.  It’s ninety-one minutes but could be easily cut down to seventy. Liang twice cuts away from his audacious, ethnographic footage for long scenes of the mountain inhabitants eating their lunch. Perhaps, it’s his way of highlighting the human cost of the land’s destruction but that’s conveyed so much better in other portions of the documentary. The scenes of the workers failing to wash the dirt off their bodies, then later having their lungs drained in hospital or a shot of a baby playing in dirt on his parents’ supposedly grassland farm – these incredibly, poignant and human scenes make the less interesting ones stick out like a sore thumb.


Also, Behemoth’s ending is strangely stitched together. There is a shot of the graves of all the migrant workers who have died from pneumoconiosis, where the cemetery is engulfed in smog and through it we see the coal mining plants. This to me, would be a perfect last shot, highlighting that the damage of this increased mechanisation is inescapable even in death. However, the documentary continues for another ten minutes, highlighting the luxurious “ghost-towns” for which all the destruction has been for. This portion of the drama is important but the movie just ends there rather anti-climatically. As a result, Liang’s final shot doesn’t land that ultimate, emotional punch.

However, despite these set-backs, Liang deserves credit for addressing a serious and upsetting problem (which I was unaware of) and tackling it in the most cinematic way possible. Behemoth is rigorous and patience-testing viewing, but its imagery will sear into the viewer’s mind.

Behemoth is in selected cinemas from Friday.


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