‘Behemoth’ disappoints with weak storytelling, slow development


Jenna Liu

The opening scene of ‘Behemoth’ depicts a colossal explosion, with swelling plumes of smoke painting the sky dark. That, unfortunately, marks the most interesting part of the next hour. For a film that covers such an important subject as the migrant workers who toil in mines for Chinese industrialization, ‘Behemoth’ is clogged with repetitive images and confusing gimmicks. There are at least 15 slow pans across the same dull gray landscape, each less meaningful than the previous.  
In using Dante’s Divine Comedy as the guiding structure for ‘Behemoth,’ director Zhao Liang has made a valiant effort to merge Art House filmmaking with documentary storytelling. The result is more student-film project than poetry.
A recurring shtick throughout the film depicts a naked man curled up in the fetal position as Zhao uses lyrical prose to dreamily narrate the conflict between man and nature; those moments seem as forced as they are cringe-inducing.
These oftentimes-confusing recitations are the only dialogue present in the film. The result is a story with no plot and characters that remain voiceless and nameless. The emotional distance between the audience and the subjects of the film could have been breached if Zhao let his camera linger longer on a few people and their stories, rather than jumping around to capture anonymous workers laboring in the mines. We get a few powerful close-ups of soot-stained visages, but they are drowned out by 10-minute-long sequences of coal shoveling.
One message ‘Behemoth’ tries to send — that of civilization’s destructive impacts on the purity of nature — is weakened by contrived scenes depicting a man carrying a mirror on his back, paralleling Virgil’s role as Dante’s guide through the pits of hell. The message’s subtlety, shown beautifully through a shot that depicts green grasslands bordering pits that crawl with bulldozers, loses its effect when Zhao’s signature voiceover repeatedly reinforces the idea.
It is not until the last act of ‘Behemoth’ that the focus shifts to the suffering migrant workers who face increasing rates of pneumoconiosis, an often deadly respiratory disease. It is here that Zhao’s tactic of not including any context, information or dialogue succeeds. As the screen captures miners’ hacking coughs and a mother’s anguish while holding a photo of her deceased son, the audience is able to piece each portrait together into a collage of tragedy and resilience.
Those captivating moments, however, come too late to save ‘Behemoth.’ While some may certainly appreciate the creative risks the film took, it will likely be too unstructured, slow-moving and detached for many documentary-goers’ tastes.