Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 29, 2016 9:25 pm 
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[Art film + documentary]

Zhao Liang acts as a modern-day Dante exploring Inner Mongolia’s environmental destruction by toxic coal mining

Zhao Liang draws inspiration from Dante, regarding horrific deep-dug mines in rural China as analogous to the deeper bolgias of the great Italian poet's Inferno. The quality of this film varies. Outdoor widescreen landscapes, even those of ravaged, hideously exploited land, are strikingly beautiful. But when he moves into workers' hutches or mine shafts, with poor light, the image quality drops sharply. Nonetheless, this film earns a place among the growing literature of ethnographic documentary; and films documenting environmental destruction. The region he chose to explore in this film, the Wuhai area of Inner Mongolia, was black on the satellite map. The thing is, not only has coal mining -- and China is the biggest miner of cola and polluter with coal -- turned this place into the earth equivalent of a festering sore, but it used to be an area of particularly pretty, blissfully green wide grasslands, some of which are still to be seen and shown for comparison. Zhao makes ample use of this contrast in his highly visual and pointedly, if mostly silently, editorial film.

Jay Weissberg sums up this film in his review for Variety:
"Maverick indie helmer Zhao Liang continues his muckraking tour of China’s social and environmental woes with the stunningly lensed, cumulatively moving Behemoth. Acting as a modern-day Dante on a tour through Inner Mongolia’s coal mines and iron works, Zhao (Together, Petition) eschews narrative for an impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage, emphasizing the contrasts between rapidly dwindling green pastures and dead landscapes disemboweled by toxic mining. The human toll is also here in the final sections, making starkly clear the price impoverished workers pay for back-breaking labor. Zhao’s quiet yet powerful indignation will play to the arthouse crowd, and his striking visuals should ensure that Behemoth receives berths beyond environmental fests."

We look at young workers in the mines wearing heavy masks and we know somehow no masks will be enough here. A New York Times article reports an interview with the filmmaker.

Behemoth/Bei xi mo shou, 91 mins., debuted at Venice 11 Sept. 2015, winning the environmental Green Drop Award, and has been included in at least seven other international festivals including Stockholm, Dubai, Hong Kong, and New Directors/New Films, as part of which it was screened for this review.


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