Consciously conducting a transformation of one’s style can be a tricky and risky business for any artist, and an audacious one too. Recently in competition at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, Behemoth, directed by Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang, is a performance of such. The film borrows from the dream method and architecture of Dante’s Divine Comedy to enter the monstrous industry chain of Inner Mongolia, and in doing so contemplates ongoing natural and humanitarian disasters in China. From the investigative curiosity of the HBO series Vice to the sociological concerns of the recent documentary The Land of Many Palaces, the debt-ridden “ghost cities” and their political, economical and social causes and consequences are no stranger to journalism and filmmaking in China and elsewhere. The apocalyptic landscape of collective abandonment has undoubtedly presented a remarkable spectacle within the global circulation of media images. Zhao’s approach to this reality is unique. Starting from soil and motivated by the formidable corporeal presence of migrant workers, the film steadily proceeds through three color schemed stages: the red inferno (coal mines, iron mines, and ironworks), the grey purgatory (hospital), and the blue paradise (the “ghost city” in Ordos). Compared to his earlier works, which are often categorized as “direct cinema” –such as Crime and Punishment (2007) and the epic 5-hour Petition (2009) – Behemoth pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking by simultaneously operating on three plains: documentation, interpretation, and visual experimentation. The result is a stunning cinematic metaphor with a strong personal vision and poignant critique on what he considers the bane of such phenomenal failures of modern civilization: human desire.
Driven by a conviction in the revelatory capacity of the camera-eye, nothing is too commonplace for Zhao’s camera. To the end of accepting photography as the existential baseline of cinematic ruminations, Behemoth seems to acknowledge the Straub/Huillet position that “the greatness of film is the humbleness of being condemned to photography.” Indeed, Zhao’s image entices with a generosity of meanings in its expansive and meticulous display. While the use of depth of focus allows our eyes to wander around the screen and to determine the importance of each object, every frame is devised with a compositional elegance that strives to illuminate the ill-fated choices we have made.
Working in conjunction with cinematic strategies such as minimal editing and extreme close-ups, the pensive gaze of Zhao’s camera embeds the viewing experience with aesthetic and psychological complexity. As the image stages nothing but the power of an unadorned visage void of any histrionic gesturing, its commitment to a spiritual realism forces us to scrutinize the traces of violence that testify to the monumental smallness of these lives. Meanwhile, when the image is intensively engaged in the movement of a certain machine part, or abstracts the coal glaneuses into colour blocks in movement. The value of the object is placed in the plastic form of itself, its pictorial and poetic equivalence. The whole 90 minutes of Behemoth is charged with a tension between the unapologetic earthiness of the material body and the sublime grandeur of art.
Zhao has always sought and found meaning in people, and his films always discover pathways to burning revelations through the marginal lives at the very bottom of our social power structure. Even in front of the untameable fire at the ironworks, nothing stopped Zhao from getting close to his flaming creatures, to see the fire in their eyes, literal and metaphorical. At the moment of dawn, a night-shift worker is on his way back to the dorm: life is hard, clouds are pink and the fire lies between the land and the sky. A woman looks at a portrait of her deceased husband whereas he is looking peacefully towards us. The fire here lies between the seeing and the seen. The calloused hands of a man, the scarred leg of a woman, the laboured breathing at work, the heaving chest in the sickbed; these scorching images never ceases to pain.
If the sensuality and pleasure of realism confirms the existence of a world beyond the screen, then poetry and the choreography of the image give method to Zhao’s pathos. Intermittently, the film enters these surreal scenes where the world fractures into a broken mirror of irregular pieces. As the intact landscape is replaced by a disintegrated one, and the internal fragmentation of image takes over montage as the visual rhythm device, the film submits itself to a different set of governing conditions of time and place – those of dreamland. If the dream in Divine Comedy is a metaphor for the author’s spiritual journey towards God, the dream in Behemoth is its segue towards mournful introspection and a spiritual escape from industrial clamour into the tranquillity of primitive innocence as symbolized by the fragile naked body. In visualizing and verbalizing his own considerations of reality, his expressions of grievance, and an internal quest for answers, Zhao finds himself performing several balancing acts –some with more success than others. Much as the mirror within the black frame (a black framed photo is commonly used as portrait for the deceased in China) points to an enlightening symbolism of the death of the natural paradise, the abrupt disappearing of a man holding a plant at the final scene is suspiciously gimmicky. Occasionally with Zhao’s voice in elegiac sentimentality, a sense of finality emerges; when an image conforms to its accompanying text in an excessive manner, or when a conclusion is explicitly given, the film meets a momentary ending of its imagination and intelligence. At such moments, I wished for more freedom, for that would have allowed delightful epiphanies and a cinematic detachment that affords us the opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of the world.
Among all possible readings of the “I” in Behemoth, one obviously is Zhao himself. His personal presence and intervention in the narrative ascends to be equal to the material as another primary motor as well as the object of observation of the film. Behemoth reminds us of an often forgotten truth: that cinema is a visual art before it is a narrative one. With a personally unprecedented liberation, Zhao opens up his canvas to a field of colliding and coalescing audio-visual forces. This is why, the true accomplishment of Behemoth is not for its ideological independence, but its cinematic victory.
The original text in Chinese is published on artforum.com.cn: http://artforum.com.cn/column/8367.