From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage emerge questions: for whom is this empty paradise built? Is the human and environmental price worth the pursuit of the ideal? Thus begins our own journey of reflection and self-examination.
Zhao’s work has been exhibited at a number of Walker events, including the 2010 Expanding the Frame series, the 2009 exhibition Zhao Liang: Heavy Sleepers, 2003’s How Latitudes Become Forms, and as part of the 2002 Dig.It Festival of Digital Media. In advance of Behemoth’s February 3–5 screenings in the Walker Cinema, Zhao discussed his experiences in the mind, the film’s symbolism, and its relation to his visual art.
Kelsey Bosch: You cite Dante’s Divine Comedy as a major influence for this film. When did you first read it, and how did it impact you?
Zhao Liang: It was during my shoot at the mine that I actually started reading the Divine Comedy. The first time I saw the continuous lifeless mine crater I felt like I had arrived at hell. Every time I came to these mines I would update my WeChat moment: “Back to hell again.” My producer, Sylvie Blum, reminded me to read the Divine Comedy, so I started it. I found the description of hell—going down level by level—so similar to the mines I saw. Afterward, I picked the structure of Divine Comedy to structure my film.
Bosch: Were you able to develop relationships with the people you filmed and hear their perspective on the environmental and humanitarian concerns addressed in Behemoth?
Zhao: We do have communication. The mine workers know that they are destroying the natural environment, but they also think it’s fairly natural to do so, since those mine resources are there for utilization, otherwise it would be a waste. More importantly for them, it is to make a living that they do such dangerous, dirty, and tired work.
Bosch: After your experiences at the mine, where do you see the global economy headed?
Zhao: I’m not so good at global economic problems, but my first reaction to those scenes is that human beings are cutting their own throats to ruin themselves. If we think deeply, we have to ask: have human beings gone on a wrong path? Was there any other possibility since the invention of the steam engine? Or has the dark side of the profit chain prevented the development of solar energy? Those are all my guesses. But I’m sure that the greed of human beings brought about the situation today.
Bosch: There are a number of visual symbols in Behemoth: red/blue screens, darkness/lightness, fire, and, most notably, the mirror and the “shattered” landscape. It reminds me of Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, in which the cloaked figure with a mirror face follows Deren, or The Blood of a Poet by Jean Cocteau, in which the mirror was a sort of porthole between reality and surreality. What about the mirror and/or reflection interested you in regards to Behemoth?
Zhao: In the film, I used several colors to represent the three realms: red and black represent the hell, gray represents purgatory, and blue, ironically, represents paradise. The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante.
The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other.
The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers. The mirrored image is also an illusory image as well as one of self-reflection.
Bosch: You developed a rich soundscape in Behemoth, between sounds of industry and the human body. Can you describe the soundscape you experienced while filming and how it influenced the work?
Zhao: Sounds are a vital part of this nondialogue film. I often became confused by some sounds while shooting, such as the huge noise of shattered ores. You start to think it’s very rhythmic electric music after hearing it for a while; you might even want to dance. The sound of iron flowing from the iron mine factory and the sound of explosions all gave me unlimited imagination. During post-production, besides designing the sound contrast of silence and noise, I also asked the composer to incorporate some of the live-recorded industry noise into the environment sound track. It sounds like music but is very obscure.
Bosch: You’ve participated in Walker Art Center’s Expanding the Frame program and seem to cross back and forth from more experimental or installation-based moving image art and cinematic features. How do you approach these different formats, and what interests you about each? Do you work in other media as well?
Zhao: Besides film, I’m more interested in video arts because I can express myself more freely. Since graduating from fine art school I have been working in contemporary art, and making film was a coincidence. In the ’90s, China was seeing dramatic changes, even daily. We were immerged in new social problems more frequently than ever than before, so I wanted to record everything while the official media was busy boasting or lying. To record reality feels like rescuing your treasure from a fire disaster. After 20 years, I feel like the documentaries and video art I made are somehow not so well connected. I want to enjoy the making of films as much as I do making video artworks. Behemoth is my first try.