Maverick indie director Zhao Liang continues his muckraking tour of China's social and environmental woes with the stunning, 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.
Audiences will split over whether the passages from "The Divine Comedy" excerpted here add a weight of pretension, but most will be able to compartmentalize that not-ungrounded gripe and focus on the skilled lensing and the disturbing message, which joins a growing chorus of native voices calling attention to the unbridled destruction of the country's ecosystem.
The film's first section is shot in the east, where coal mines ravage the pastoral scene, turning emerald hills into ashen pits. Ever alert to the power of juxtaposition, Zhao aims his camera at areas where the contrast between alive and dead is most glaring, as if a desiccating blight has zapped shepherds' fields and reduced them to gray powder. Snow-white sheep perch perilously close to the gaping abyss created by Transformer-like trucks digging for an outdated carcinogen, replacing centuries of husbandry with mechanized annihilation. In his desire to contrast living creatures with motorized steel, Zhao tends to forget that mankind is also behind these robotic forces of destruction, but the visceral impact is potent, and he ensures the human element is later brought to the fore.
Next the pic moves west, to ironworks where men toil in hellish conditions. Encircled by molten metal (the air is hot enough to scald lungs) and accompanied by a deafening industrial roar, the images invoke Dante's epic, both the eternal burn of hell and the fire-purging realm of Purgatory. The toll on the population is made clear in the next section, focusing on medical issues that include major respiratory problems and the buildup of viscous black liquid in the lungs. It's deeply disturbing to look at some of the children here and realize that most will probably never reach 50. Some protest, but who's listening? It's hard to shake the thought that the Upton Sinclairs of this world can no longer make much of a difference.
The final chapter aims to demonstrate the uselessness of it all: The ghost district of Kangbashi, in Ordos City, is often held up as a prime example of China's real-estate bubble, its eerily unused streets and row upon row of empty high-rises providing a blunt reminder of the wastefulness of the country's mad rush toward self-destructive productivity. Billed as a worker's paradise, the city is but another hollow promise, taunting in its gleaming modernity yet devoid of life.
"Behemoth" is unquestionably Zhao's most accomplished film, more cohesive than "Petition" and paying greater attention to its impressive visuals. Some may criticize the director's reach for a blend of poetry and nonfiction: Is the nude figure of a man in various landscapes really necessary? Despite such over-arty flourishes, the cinematography never fails to drive home a sense of paradise lost, furthered by images with digitally created fractured lines, which represent the disruption of nature's gift.
"Behemoth" — 3 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday at Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton, www.facets.org