Named after the biblical monster created on the fifth day after the earth’s creation, a marauding and insatiable destroyer, Zhao makes the parallels clear: the Behemoth here is the invisible Chinese government, sending its people down mines and into foundries, the locations both hellish and otherworldly, the mine’s vast slag heaps like something from a lunar landscape or the hostile planets of Interstellar. The narrator cites Dante’s Inferno and the end credits also mention Dante’s Divine Comedy as inspiration for the film. And this film is truly hellish, taking us into the bowels of the earth or the stifling steelworks, all molten metal and sparks flying.
The almost incessant awfulness is occasionally lifted when we follow the Mongolian shepherd and his family. Living in their yurt, the bucolic loveliness of their lifestyle that has changed little over the years (bar the odd TV or cellphone) is in direct dichotomy with the sprawling hideousness of the adjacent mine. As the mine encroaches on the shepherd’s territory, there is a sense that this lifestyle might soon be engulfed by the monster. Zhao also finds fake sheep and a shepherdess, the sculptures placed in a field alongside some belching power station, a mockery of a centuries-old way of life.
As Zhao lingers on the faces of the sooted men, the coal dust penetrating every crease and orifice, we gaze into the kohl-lined eyes and see the exhaustion and suffering. Yet the narrator states that when he looks at these careworn, prematurely aged faces he can still see the person beneath that time and toiling has almost entirely erased. This is one element that makes the film so successful: the lingering gaze is not exploitative or wallowing in misery porn, it is profound and full of emotional depth. Zhao has given these anonymous minions a face and a story. Alas, the horror of their tale doesn’t end when they clock off. We visit the local hospital and view the black liquid drained from the workers’ lungs. More close-ups ensue of wheezing men and tearful widowed women.
Zhao has achieved something quite amazing. In a state notorious for its tight controls and censorship, with criticisms a rarity, this director has created a damning indictment of his country. He shows us the ghost cities that have sprung up, tumbleweed crossing an empty road and rubbish men cleaning the inhabitant-free streets. Why do these phantom towns exist when workers live in Dickensian conditions? Is this money-laundering, state corruption or state ineptitude? Zhao has given a voice and a face to the millions of workers who endanger or lose their lives in order to feed the behemoth that is the Chinese economy. There are just enough elements of poetry and figurativeness and just enough shifts in tone to keep the viewer constantly engaged. This is a brave and beautiful work, which few would begrudge the Golden Lion.