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'Behemoth' Shines a Light on the Horrific Lives of Mongolian Coal Miners

We chat with the legendary director about his newest film, ghost towns, and the future of China.

by Rod Bastanmehr
May 30 2017, 8:30pm

Behemoth / INA

Over the past 24 years, Zhao Liang's cemented himself as one of the foremost artistic activists of the modern era. His work puts him in conversation with contemporary figures like Ai Weiwei, who similarly hails from China and creates work that pushes against the country's tightening restrictions. Born in 1971, Liang's films manage to capture the full breadth of a rapidly changing world, often reaching across the border that divides centuries—his film Farewell To Yuanmingyuan was filmed in 1995, only to be completed over a decade later in 2006.

As a filmmaker working in a country with challenging censorship policy—he's worked in Beijing since graduating Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in 1992—his films have come under fire for their attempt to confront the country's national schizophrenia: an industrial revolution marred by continuing limits on its social revolution. His 2009 documentary Petition tackles China's legal system and was banned after premiering at Cannes.

His newest film, Behemoth, which screened in competition at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, is both his most confrontational and abstract work yet, taking on the structure of documentary and tone poem. Inspired loosely by Dante's Divine Comedy, Behemoth chronicles the horrific working conditions of the modern Mongolian coal miner, juxtaposing the micro suffering of the people at the helm against the macro effect on the country's natural landscape. It's a powerful declaration of China's corrupt practices, and it's also Liang's masterpiece.

We spoke to him about his process, China's notorious ghost towns, and his doubts about whether artists can actually change the world.

VICE: What attracted you to Inner Mongolia?
Zhao Liang: When I was doing research to prepare this film, I traveled through Inner Mongolia and was astounded by the colossal scale of open-pit mining. The beautiful Inner Mongolian grassland is often described as "heaven" in our folk songs, while in my impression, many places have turned into a living hell due to the mineral mining and oil explorations. I was shocked by those mines.

Can you talk about the production process?
It took me roughly one year to do the research on the environment and Chinese real estate, and the filming itself took a year and a half. I went through most parts of China to investigate local environmental conditions: Xinjiang, Tibet, and Yunnan, as well as along the Yangtze River and Yellow River.

One of the most fascinating portions of the film is the third act, which takes place in the "ghost city" of Erdos. Did you know this city before the production?
Due to interest in rich minerals and the rapid economic development of this area, private miners amassed great wealth in a short time. So Erdos has been a well-known "ghost city" for many years. During the real estate boom, everyone here wanted to develop new buildings with artificially inflated prices in order to attract property investments, but Erdos, located in a desert area, is sparsely populated with an already saturated housing market, so few outsiders purchased houses here for investment.

How many cities like Erdos exist in China?
A conservative estimate would be no fewer than a hundred. Basically, every single second- or third-tier city has its own "ghost town." My hometown, with a population fewer than 1 million, also has a huge-scale "ghost town"—it just built a new residential area that could accommodate 400,000 people, while the occupancy rate now is less than 1 percent. Under the government's aegis, these urban development projects were funded by public financing and bank loans.

The shots of these high-rises are some of the film's most bizarre and dreamlike. What purpose do they serve for the Chinese government?
This phenomenon stems from the bureaucracy. In order to reach higher office, every official needs astonishing achievements in their tenure. This includes building new infrastructure that looks glorious but are constructed blindly without considering the actual market demand. When construction is complete and the leadership have their own "beautiful" achievements, they get promotions and leave without having to deal with those unsold houses. At the same time, bad bank debts have brought about enormous potential risks.

You are very close to the group of people you shot in the film. How did you maintain emotional intimacy with them?
The filming subjects I chose are people I like. I told them about my purpose for the film. A director should always treat their subjects with honesty and sincerity. There is an old Chinese saying: "Friendships between men of virtue should be as light as water." I think it is necessary to establish a healthy relationship between the subject and the cinematographer in filming. I didn't intend to keep a distance from protagonists. I've made friends with them in daily life.

Behemoth is almost a work of photography. Did you intend to blur the lines between photography and cinema?
From the perspective of aesthetics, I prefer the sense of time slowly flowing in stasis. I don't like the tension rendered by montage. The naturally flowing changes within the image are more powerful to me. You use your own vision and hearing to feel poetic meaning. I tried to present things that merely "look very beautiful" in a minimalistic way so the viewer can discover the ugly truth for themselves.

Has your relationship with the Chinese government changed? How was the film released in China?
The concept of "government" is incredibly abstract. I have never thought about having any relationship to such a hollow word. "Government" is really a pile of buildings where some people work inside. Their jobs include banning my film, yet we even don't know each other. Because of fear, they prevented the film from meeting an audience. I think if I privately communicated with every person in these buildings through my film, I'm afraid they all would agree with my viewpoint. What divides us is not different values, but that our eyes have been shielded. Despite some small-scale private screenings like in bars or bookstores owned by cinephiles, the film has been prohibited in mainland China.

As a film director who attempts to discover the truth and record the country, how do you see the future trajectory of China?
The future of China is not isolated from the rest of the world. Economic globalization ties all countries together. The only truly meaningful progress is whether China can do a better job in civil rights and education, although the flaws of the current administrative system must be solved first. Otherwise, reform measures are only palliatives, which cannot change the passive situation radically.

In a previous interview, you said that you don't believe that art can make a difference to society. Why do you think so? What kind of role artists play today?
Artists always expect their works to have certain social values or meanings. I would not deny the existence of this, but I'm disappointed that my works have had little value or function in society. It might be a personal feeling of loss, since they can't be viewed by my people. An artwork that no one has seen is equal to being nonexistent. It may also be my sort of protest. We could barely see any hope in our current world, and it will probably become worse in the future. Our art mostly plays the role of a voucher. Our artists are creating capital or playing the clowns in capital chains. It is a spiritless age.

Behemoth is now available to rent and watch on VOD.

Follow Rod Bastanmehr on Twitter.

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