It's difficult initially to reconcile the Zhao Liang who directs Behemoth with the author of the dramatically disturbing Petition - that 2009 film was a collage of heartbreakingly immediate scenes documenting the almost Kafkian struggles of the impoverished rural Chinese with an opaque bureaucracy, while Behemoth is a meticulously formalist quasi-essayist thinkpiece made of elaborately constructed, crisply set-up visual flourishes.
The urgency of Petition is here replaced by a deliberately paced, more abstract meditation that, however, extends the concern with China as a headstrong juggernaut that may very well be eating itself from the inside. Looking at the effects of rapid industrialization and resource extraction in inner Mongolia, Behemoth uses Dante's Divine Comedy as its inspiration and framework, taking a slow-motion look at this formerly peaceful world as it goes to hell in a handbasket. Its careful visual compositions portray a possible apocalypse, or at least the makings of a present-day dystopia, in rarefied allegorical terms; the pictorial qualities of the film, breathtakingly photographed by Mr. Zhao himself in high-definition state-of-the-art cameras, achieve a delicate yet deliberate distancing effect achieved through the recurrent use of mirrors, windows and frames.
All of this may occasionally seem overbearing or overused, but the ingenuity of Mr. Zhao means that what seems to be an apparently shapeless sequence of images and narration is slowly kneaded into a dread-full portrait of a post-communist ghost country, an abandoned Babylon whose inhabitants embraced the future without pausing to think about it. Behemoth wants to be the call to pause, thus becoming a unique, thought-provoking film experience.
France, 2015, 88 minutes
Directed and photographed by Zhao Liang (colour); written by Mr. Zhao and Sylvie Blum, inspired by the poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri; music by Alain Mahé and Huzi; film editor Fabrice Rouaud; visual effects supervisor Eve Ramboz; produced by Ms. Blum; an Institut National de l'Audiovisuel/ARTE France co-production
Screened November 27th 2015, Lisbon, Porto/Post/Doc screener
BEHEMOTH (2015) by Zhao Liang [excerpt] from Richard Lormand on Vimeo.