Zhao Liang’s ‘Behemoth’: can images speak louder than words?

I saw Zhao Liang’s Behemoth at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. I had forgotten about the documentary until I recently read a rave review in the magazine Little White Lies. I then looked around online and found a five-star review from Wendy Ide at The Observer, declaring that the film’s ‘stunning images speak louder than words’. I decided to write this post because frankly, I completely disagree.

Among many people, particularly China watchers, the issues surrounding the corrupt and unsafe Chinese mining industry are extremely pertinent. However, without wanting to sound too pretentious, there may a lot of people that are not particularly aware of this. My partner, for example, hadn’t heard much about these problems. While audiences watching a film about the unjust Chinese mining industry may not be doing so without certain knowledge and expectations, the documentary does not make it easy.

Certain scenes, particularly those up close and personal portrayals of the human impact of the corrupt industry, were very powerful. A scene in a hospital, for example, in which we see large glass vessels full of black liquid extracted from mine workers’ lungs leaves no room for imagination. What’s more, when the husband of a couple the film briefly follows dies from his mine-induced illness, the grief of the wife and her subsequent protest outside a government building provide an emotional look at the real impact.

These scenes, however, do not make up the film’s entirety. Instead, long shots of scenery, mine exteriors, and a naked man repeatedly lying in a field, form the foundation. While the voice over quoting Dante may be poetic to some, the audience in my screening, myself included, did not appear to agree. During the film, a handful of people left and I identified three people asleep. Bear in mind the film is only about 90 minutes long, however the long dragging scenes make it feel like an eternity.

Aside from the human representations, the film’s depiction of China’s deserted new cities was an interesting addition. My favourite scene of the whole film was one in which we see a tumble weed roll through an empty crossroad and then a man, presumably hired to tend to this ghost town, runs and grabs it before it can continue on its way.

Overall, the film’s message is incredibly necessary, but a few less long shots and more dialogue from those impacted by the industry, rather than the pretentious abstract voiceover, may have made the film more powerful and, frankly, more watchable.

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