A miner carrying a mirror guides a seeker of truth through the grasslands, coal mines, iron foundries, hospital wards and deserted suburbs of Inner Mongolia in a bid to expose the human and environmental cost of China's economic miracle.
A key figure in China's independent documentary movement, Zhao Liang has never been afraid to speak his mind, whether he's tackling North Korea, the legal system or AIDS discrimination. Unsurprisingly, Beijing has forbidden the domestic screening of this potent snapshot, which blurs the line between video art and documentary in taking its inspiration from Dante's Divine Comedy and the landscape studies of Michael Glawogger and Edward Burtynsky to reveal the true price of those low-cost goods marked 'Made in China' that have flooded the global market.
Although a coal miner with a mirror on his back acts as a latterday Virgil to a seeker of truth with a penchant for adopting naked foetal poses against soulless industrial backdrops, this is anything but an arty treatise. Acting as his own narrator and cameraman, Zhao lets his visuals do most of the talking, as he laments the destruction of the Mongolian steppe in the name of consumerism. Sheep graze on small islands of verdant pasture as underground explosions send plumes of smoke over swathes of coal-dusted desolation. Miners risk their lives to plunder seams in the bowels of the Earth, while scavengers toil through the night on steepling slag heaps and iron smelters endure the heat and fumes of a seething river of molten metal.
Men with faces blackened by coal or scorched by infernos stare impassively into the lens, seemingly resigned to their exploitation, poverty and the almost inevitable onset of pneumoconiosis. But, as he roams between the pristine towerblocks of a ghost city, Zhao's sense of outrage is palpable and it's impossible not to concur, as the furious poetry of his unflinching imagery burns into the mind.
Filled with striking and scarringly disconcerting images of vandalised nature, satanic mills and redundant modernity, this is a mournful tribute to a maligned migrant workforce and a sobering reminder that nothing comes cheap.