Political documentarian Zhao Liang draws inspiration from 'The Divine Comedy' for this intoxicating and terrifying glimpse at the ravages wrought upon Inner Mongolia by its coal and iron industries. Beautiful grasslands are being overrun by earth destroyed by coal mining, blackening the surrounding landscape and poisoning its people. 'Behemoth' tours exploding hillsides, dank mine shafts, cacophonous factories, and vacant cities, building upon Zhao's previous exposes (2009's Petition, 2007's Crime and Punishment) by combining his investigative streak with a painterly vision of a social and ecological nightmare unfolding out of sight. Mesmerizing and dreamlike in its stark birds' eye observations of the industrial processes at work, this is a nearly silent trip into Dante's circle of hell from one of China's most talented filmmakers.
The kind of film that is best viewed with others, at home, where everyone can hold forth on their views about the costs of “progress”, the incredible forces unleashed by capitalism and the toll it has taken on our planet. I thought the final third - when we finally see what has been made and what it has built - was deeply moving. The persistent use of mirrors to fracture the scenery and the scattering of naked bodies as a framing device for the narrative I found less convincing, but I shall rewatch to give that motif a more thorough reflection.
Part documentary, part art house, this is a wonderfully photographed depiction of the purgatorial lives led in heavy mining and steel making in pursuit of China’s economic miracle. It is slow moving and with little narrative, except for some poetry based on Dante’s inferno. If you liked Koyaanisquatsi this is close.
Just in passing I think it is a bit unfair of DJ to blame capitalism as this was entirely under dirigiste communism, you'd never get away with it here.