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Short Take: Behemoth

(Zhao Liang, France, Grasshopper Film, Opens January 27)

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth one-ups the Bleak House attrition of his 2009 Petition with ecological-socioeconomic convulsion on a Dantean and Biblical scale.


The sublime devastation of massive industry has appeared in documentaries before, but for his portrayal of Inner Mongolian mines, Zhao reaches for the lyrical to express the scale and ruthlessness of Chinese industrialization. Vast valleys, machines, and explosions sprawl across the screen, interspersed with voiceover quotations adapted from Dante and punctuated with the image of a nude, embryonically curled man poised in the landscape, emblematic of human fragility and suggesting a figure in a classical engraving.

Zhao plays with perspective and the flatness of the image to suggest that industry and the behemoth-like appetites of modern economies have a way of warping reality itself. The workers disappear into these compositions, or appear, front and center, blackened or sickened by their back-breaking, lung-searing labors. The cryptic figure of man carrying a mirror on his back recurs to add one more metaphor to the monstrous allegory on display; a section on a flaming ironworks literalizes the infernal outlook. Somewhere among all of this are some local sheep, standing in for a threatened way of life. Zhao labors mightily to find a new register for the ongoing document of Chinese modernity, expressing finally a new mythology that entraps humanity.