Zhao Liang Finds the Poetry — And Pain — in Inner Mongolia’s Coal Mines


“It’s too simplistic to say,”
Antonioni told Godard of
his film Red Desert, “that I am condemning the inhuman industrialized world….My intention was to translate the poetry of that world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The lines and curves of the factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of the trees.” Zhao Liang might agree. The acclaimed Chinese documentarian and video artist assumes, in his new film, Behemoth, a poetic view of industry — here made exquisite in its violence, ravishing in its destructive power. Much as Antonioni did in the petrochemical plants of northern Italy, Zhao finds in the coal mines and ironworks of Inner Mongolia a devastating, infuriating splendor.

He finds there too a workforce in peril. Millions of migrant workers across China suffer from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung — pernicious, often
fatal, and virtually impossible to avoid when working day after day in such
conditions. The environmental damage effected by coal extraction, meanwhile,
is immense, the long-term repercussions catastrophic; over the past three decades, a title card at the end of the film explains, mining “has reduced the lake areas of
Inner Mongolia by approximately 20
percent and done incalculable damage to the soil.” The laborers in the mines are killing themselves in desperation, without recourse, and destroying the land in the process. Another title card puts the human plight bluntly: “Hundreds of thousands have already died.” Countless more still will.

For what? This question looms over Behemoth and indeed remains unanswered for much of the running time. One presumes Chinese development and advanced urbanization is to blame; all this intensive labor, this back-breaking toil, must be the price the country pays for the comfort of its metropolitan elite. But no. What these ailing workers are suffering for, Zhao reveals in his film’s last act, are ghost towns — modern cities, hundreds of them all over China, lustrous with state-of-the-art grandeur and for years now totally unoccupied.

In these pitiful urban
lacunae Zhao finds nothing: just stillness, in stark contrast to the drudgery in the mines. Vacant high-rise condos stand impassively. Pristine streets languish bare. Custodians walk the roads picking up errant twigs
for want of trash. A tumbleweed — an honest-to-goodness tumbleweed — blows through the frame. It is absurd. So is this monument to political hubris.

Zhao makes the blackly comic irony of the situation perfectly clear. (And it’s clear the ironist in Zhao is angry, not amused.) What Behemoth articulates is in fact always lucid, despite the film’s indirect, understated approach. “Video art is very free, unlike documentary, which tends to have a linear logic,” Zhao said last year in an interview with Slant magazine. “So when I started shooting the raw materials, I shot freely, as if making video art.”

In an earlier form Behemoth was exhibited in galleries as an installation, and the finished product — devoid of the conventions typical among ordinary docs, from expository voiceover to talking heads — retains that expressive purity. This is a film about the devastation of Inner Mongolia and the systematic annihilation of its migrant workers, but it is no mere coup d’œil of righteous advocacy. It is a work of film art: It translates, to use Antonioni’s phrase, the poetry of this world.


Directed by Zhao Liang

Grasshopper Film

Opens January 27, Metrograph