November 25, 2017 – This documentary film about coal mining, coal miners and ghost cities in China is a hybrid, more art film than documentary, providing few statistics, but it tells a compelling story of hell on earth through images and music.
Rather than a lot of information about the hazards of coal mining on the health of coal miners or the environment, given through narration or intertitles, the information in this movie is mostly shown in images, or heard in sound, music, literary references and spoken poetry (I saw the French-German version of this film, which, unlike the original Chinese version of this film, includes a voice-over by writer-director Zhao Liang). The main literary reference is The Divine Comedy, a narrative poem written by Dante Alighieri in 1320, with the purgatorio and inferno parts as the main themes.
The descent into purgatory seems to be an exploration of a large open pit mine in the Wuhai region of Inner Mongolia. The film opens with an explosive blast in the mine, followed by dust and coal chunks flying through the air in slow motion. Smoke and dust seems omnipresent in the mine. In sharp contrast, sheep herders on horses and motorcycles work their herds nearby. This was what the land used to look like before the mine.
Like scavengers in the night, people come to discarded piles of coal, picking through the debris for usable coal. They shovel the coal into small vehicles all night long, coming and going in a steady stream. A naked man appears in a number of shots in the film, always laying on his side with his back to the camera. It seems as if this is intended to provide a human perspective to the massive coal mine. It is an old idea: Man is the measure of all things.
The purgatory idea continues with shots of a number of people suffering from pneumoconiosis, black lung disease, a common, and deadly condition of many coal miners, including those in the United States. One scene in the film shows bottles in a hospital filled with black tainted liquid. In another scene a woman holds a picture of a dead man, who was seen alive earlier in the film.
This is the land, these are the men and women who power the economic might of China, and who pay the costs of the benefits of cheap power and steel. In a number of scenes in the film, a coal miner carries a mirror on his back. We are meant to reflect how all of us have benefitted from his work, but have not paid for the cost of it.
Near the end of the film is a bizarre scene of a ghost city. It looks brand new, but seems to be largely deserted, with only a few workers cleaning the deserted streets. This Inner Mongolian city, Ordos City (Kang Bashi District) is the “false heaven” which is part of Zhao Liang's journey from purgatory. The inferno is the overpowering red glare of the steel mills fed by the coal from the mine by a seemingly endless line of trucks.
Despite all these spectacular images of the trucks, steel mills and mines, it is the faces of the miners that haunt me the most, those dirty, weary faces that seemed drained of hope, like the sign over the entrance to hell often quoted from the Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This film rates a B.
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