Monday, March 14, 2016

ND/NF ’16: Behemoth

Just for the record, China’s leading documentarian has explicitly likened the country to Hell through a deliberate and unmistakable extended cinematic metaphor. Zhao Liang takes viewers on a guided tour of the environmental devastation wantonly inflicted on Inner Mongolia, with only Dante’s Inferno provided for commentary. The Divine Comedy becomes a Communist tragedy in Zhao’s Behemoth (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Zhao will take us to three specific locations, or rings of Hell if you will. The first is in the east, where the coal industry gives strip mining a bad name. The nomadic herders almost find themselves outrunning the collapsing earth under the feet, like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon rendered, well yes, in Hell.

The furnaces and blackened faces of the western iron forges could not could well be what inspired Zhao’s poetic use of Dante. It is literally a subterranean inferno. Just watching this section might cause lung damage and burn trauma.

The concluding segment takes in the spectacle of the Kangbashi New Area, the eerily empty sprawling residential high rises and office buildings that stand like a monument to hasty overdevelopment in Ordos City. Evidently, some recent documentaries have suggested Kangbashi is no longer as uninhabited as once reported. However, it still looks pretty darn desolate in Zhao’s recent footage. Maybe it still is not yet the right time to pursue that Kangbashi Quizno’s franchise after all.

Zhao, who serves as his own cinematographer, captures some striking, stunning, and altogether staggering images. However, he consciously de-emphasizes the human element, which makes Behemoth a much more challenging viewing experience than his profoundly powerful Petition or the daring muckraking of Crime and Punishment. Indeed, the film has an experimental ethos, in the most forbidding sense of the term.

Nevertheless, Zhao just sends truth cascading over the audience. It is impossible to watch Behemoth and not conclude the Communist government and its oligarchical cronies have recklessly plundered the provincial environment past the point of criminal negligence, directly and perhaps deliberately endangering the regional ethnic populations that depend on the land for their livelihoods. Zhao’s visuals stand as an overpowering indictment, but they might also overwhelm less adventurous viewers. Recommended for sophisticated cineastes, Behemoth screens this Thursday (3/17) at MoMA and Friday (3/18) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2016 ND/NF.