Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang is mostly associated with brave and heartwrenching cinema that illuminates marginal lives in China. The images of artists being unreasonably evicted as illegitimate residents (Farewell Yuanmingyuan (1995)), abusive border police violently torturing ordinary citizens (Crime and Punishment (2007)), and petitioners getting sent to mental institutions for simply confronting the government (Petition (2009)) stand in stark contrast to the Chinese mainstream media’s negligence and elimination of this social landscape. But his latest film Behemoth, a metaphorical piece about the monstrous industrial chain in Inner Mongolia, makes a remarkable stylistic departure from these material-driven documentaries. As much as the film inherits Zhao’s attention to the conditions of on-the-edge demographic groups, poetry and visual experimentation play equally prominent roles to his observational position. After Behemoth was announced to be in competition at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, we spoke in Zhao’s studio in Beijing about Behemoth and the evolution behind the artist’s self-transformation.
Lu Yangqiao (Rail): Recently the five-hour version of Petition screened in Hong Kong, and I heard that you cried during the screening. What were you experiencing?
Zhao Liang: Yes, I couldn’t hold it in. I hadn’t watched it in five or six years. When I saw the characters in the film, I thought of their lives and stories beyond the film. For example, there is an old lady, I know that she started petitioning in the 1950s. It felt like an old friend and all her life stories were coming back to me. I felt so embarrassed, because I hate tears, but I cried throughout the whole film. The energy and the mental aura of the film were overwhelming. I couldn’t believe that I made it. The author will die, but the characters in the film will live on forever. A lot of people expressed a suffocating feeling while watching the film. It’s too heavy. It felt like I accidentally made a thing, and now it’s alive on its own. There were a couple of moments where the audience laughed. It wasn’t particularly funny in the film. I think they might have needed a moment to jump out of the film, to breathe.
Rail: Let’s talk about your new film, Behemoth. The film is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and structured after the Inferno-Purgatory-Paradise framework of the poem. Did this inspiration come first, or the footage?
Zhao: I originally wanted to make a road documentary, so I was traveling extensively in China, from Xinjiang to Tibet to Inner Mongolia. When I got to Inner Mongolia, I was so taken by the landscape before me: the immense and endless mine pits, not a single trace of life. It felt as if I was on another planet. As a visual artist, it hit me. I started shooting, and it was 2012. The living conditions there, as you can imagine, are terrible. Every time I went back to shooting, I would describe it to my producer as “going back to hell,” and when she looked at the footage, she was shocked by the stunning similarities between the mine pits and Dante’s Inferno. So I picked up a Chinese copy of the Divine Comedy and read it on my way back to Inner Mongolia. The reality matches the poem so perfectly, from Hell to Purgatory to Paradise, except in the film, it is a fake paradise, and that’s where the irony comes from. Other than the visual similarities, another incredible coincidence is that in Mongolian, Ordos means “the palace in heaven,” and I had always planned to have Ordos for the final part of the film.
Rail: Behemoth is quite different from your past films. It’s not a straightforward documentary anymore. What triggered this change?
Zhao: I find the conventional documentary filmmaking and its linear form limiting. It doesn’t satisfy what I crave in filmmaking anymore. When people watch a documentary, they tend to have certain expectations. It is constraining. When I work on a video installation for a gallery space, it is relaxing and I feel more at liberty with the material. I wanted to combine the two. So it means experimentation of some kind in the film, and introducing some aesthetic interest from contemporary art, in terms of perception and understanding of art. I do find contemporary art nourishing in this respect. I don’t want to limit myself to the documentary perspective.
Rail: I saw your installation, Black Face, White Face, at the Shanghai Biennale earlier this year, where you used the same image of the workers and the naked body lying on the mines. When projected so large, the close-ups had incredible psychological impact.
Zhao: Yes, and that’s why the film also needs to be seen on a big screen. The shot I used for the installation is much longer. I cut it shorter for the film. There is more freedom in a gallery space. When you project the image alone, it allows all kinds of associations. It is not about pneumoconiosis anymore. It can be about identity, human rights, even race. But in the film, it points to a very specific direction.
Rail: The white face isn’t in Behemoth though.
Zhao: No, the white face is a lime miner, and lime mines are not that closely related to the industrial chain portrayed in the film. Plus, the color white doesn’t suit the personality of the film. Black is much better.
Rail: Another change is the absence of dialogue. In Behemoth, people don’t talk anymore. They are different creatures now.
Zhao: Yes, I removed all conversation. Conversations construct dramatic elements and sometimes sensationalism, and I am a little tired of it. After the first round of editing, I kept some conversations. For example, one herdsman says, “The mining is moving towards where we live, exactly where we are sitting right now. Where are we going to herd the sheep then?” Language like this is too important for a conventional documentary. I do lose some things by cutting it out, but in language there is a tendency to take advantage of people’s compassion and sympathy, a hope for something dramatic to happen, as if the film doesn’t have any power without an event or a theatrical moment. This is all too calculated for the author, trying to catch the eye with conflict. I want to communicate a sense of conflict within a quiet image. For example: the relationship between the naked body on grasslands and the mines. I can create a contrast with that image, so I don’t have to shoot herdsmen fighting with the mine owners. I prefer a more visual reading of it. The words are very clear and direct, but I want to change the expression of film to something I am more comfortable with—a more ideal form of cinema, a more pure mode of viewing. Vision allows more space for imagination than language. It doesn’t give you the conclusion immediately. I want the image to speak for itself.
Rail: You have always liked long takes. As a viewer, I like long takes because they give me time and space to observe and let my senses grow. When you shoot one, what do you see in it?
Zhao: In Crime and Punishment, the long takes were to allow the audience to have an experience similar to that of the character. I wanted the audience to feel the passage of time, to feel his pain and humiliation. I don’t like creating drama with montage. It’s too artificial. My films are rooted in reality, so I hope to capture those elusive moments. I made a video installation with lotus leaves (By Its Own Nature (2001)). Three screens in a row, each with one lotus leaf in it. You have to watch closely, the water gathers little by little on the leaf, and once it’s too heavy for it, the leaf bows and the water is all gone. It stands back up and the whole process starts all over again. I love the subtlety in an image like that. It’s very precious to me.
Rail: While the film follows Dante’s dream structure, there is no conspicuous narrative of any individual; there seem to be some small stories simmering but not explicitly told.
Zhao: Yes. The grand narrative of the film is like a travelogue, and I do also build small storytelling in there. For example, at first you see a man riding a horse, later you see some sheep coming down from a hill of waste rocks from the mines, and eventually you see the herdsmen’s tent in the same image as the mines. It’s an expression of distance. The spatial relationship of objects tells the story of how the mining invades the herdsmen’s life.
Rail: I know you shot a lot of footage of this man and his wife, but you ended up only using two scenes: one with him in the sickbed, the other of his wife holding his portrait after he dies.
Zhao: I intentionally left out any kind of storytelling of individuals. I don’t want to emphasize the story of pneumoconiosis. The film is more like a juxtaposition of close-ups, a sequence of image.
Rail: Watching Petition or Crime and Punishment, one would have a rather clear emotional response to the subject matter. But I didn’t feel that Behemoth was soliciting any reaction like that.
Zhao: This is also something I have learned in recent years, that if you can quickly and clearly express something, it is probably oversimplified and wrong. Only with ambiguity comes the possibility of reflection and introspection.
Rail: But you do give a straight answer in the film as to what the root of the problem is: human desire.
Zhao: Yes, and this is part of the film’s limitation. But I felt it was necessary to give a concept. I wanted to walk on both legs—ambiguity and clarity—but there is still space to grow in terms of balancing the two. The ambiguity of an artwork is very important, especially the initial moment of confusion and the raw experience of first looking at something. I always rely on my intuition. If I am really interested in something, I might look at what the explanation or statement says. I don’t like studying the meanings and interpretations behind an artwork. I prefer a direction toward chaos.
Rail: An openness?
Zhao: Not completely. There can be something hidden but directional, like a trick—you might have to ponder it for two days, just like the artwork is playing a game with you.