Review: A Dragon Arrives!
If 1960s Hollywood fever-dreamed in Farsi, it might get halfway to the Pollock-like ‘pour it and see’ genius of Mani Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives!
A bizarre beast, Mani Haghighi’s sixth feature A Dragon Arrives! is as enigmatic as the creature of its title. Contrasting a mélange of cinematic styles, what begins as a noir-like murder mystery soon morphs into a pseudo-true-crime-documentary before careering off the genre highway into the realm of a surrealist Area 51-style conspiracy tale. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking this sounds a little muddled, but the story hangs together, if only just, delivering a bewildering yet riveting ride.
I’m unfamiliar with Haghighi’s earlier works as writer-director but it seems as though none bar 2006’s Men at Work (selected for the NZIFF programme that year) got much play outside of Iran. It turns out he’s had significant collaborations with pre-runaway-international-success Asghar Farhadi (whose work I’m quite familiar with), having co-written stirring familial drama Fireworks Wednesday and acted in his equally incisive follow-up feature About Elly, the first two of Farhadi’s films to fully display his defining visual and narrative aesthetic: the modern Iranian ‘morality play’. You’d think close involvement with such films might indicate a certain cinematic standpoint, and yet A Dragon Arrives! is so far off this reservation — fusing a stylised Hollywood-esque visual quality with a narrative sensibility altogether more opaque — that Haghighi’s film is difficult to place.
A Dragon Arrives! opens on a close-up of an old reel-to-reel recorder, spooling tape in a darkened room. It’s reminiscent of the spinning record that featured in the first frames of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive; the rhythmic movement of these aged analogue technologies a symbol, in both films, of the manipulation and mixing of past and present. We soon discover an interrogation is in progress. After a brief exchange, we’re shot out into the brightly contrasted world of light, with the interrogation acting as an occasional film noir-esque narration of onscreen action and internal character monologue.
Haghighi and cinematographer Hooman Behmanesh (the pair’s first collaboration) make excellent use of contrasting bright and dark spaces and natural and contrived lighting choices. These often seem to play against the ostensible genre mode employed, like having fedora-bedecked Detective Babak Hafizi (Amir Jadidi) investigating an apparent suicide that he, to the ire of his superiors, deems suspicious. These would seem to be classic film noir markers, except Detective Hafizi is in the middle of an arid desert, in the baking sun, driving a bright orange 1960s Chevy Impala. In fact, dusty locales punctuated with bursts of highly-saturated colour are the order of the day, as if the film were some kind of mid-era Technicolor throwback. Cristof Rezaei’s scoring choices take proceedings a step further into the unexpected, breaking up periods of diegetic sound with the kind of low-intensity ‘90s industrial dance tracks you might expect to hear in The Matrix. Then before you can get a lock on the film’s tone, the soundtrack switches to a modern take on a more traditional Persian musical style, similar to that in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Government cover-ups, inexplicable rumblings in the earth on a remote island studiously ignored by the tight-lipped locals, the bones of an old ship lying earthbound in the midst of a great cemetery in the desert, portentous camels and abandoned babies
Thirteen minutes into A Dragon Arrives! the film’s title card...arrives! And with it the proclamation that this is all 'based on a true story'. A true story, we are told, that originates in an old box found hidden away in a closet in the house of the director’s actual grandfather, Ebrahim Golestan, himself a Persian filmmaker of note. Suddenly we’re watching a set of standard talking head documentary interviews with Haghighi and his family in the present day. Great care is taken to adjust the production aesthetic to be recognisably ‘documentary’ in tone. The conceit is that the filmmaker is carrying out his own ‘real world’ investigation into an unknown episode of his own family story, inside which the tale we have been watching unfolds. This ‘forgotten history’ gets stranger by the minute: government cover-ups, inexplicable rumblings in the earth on a remote island studiously ignored by the tight-lipped locals, the bones of an old ship lying earthbound in the midst of a great cemetery in the desert, portentous camels and abandoned babies. The story edges up against the supernatural without ever fully engaging or explaining it, much like the handling of the mysterious madness inducing voices in 2008 Canadian psychological horror film Pontypool. We witness effects but their source is never directly shown. I get that all of this sounds like a complete mess — I’d think so too if I’d simply read a description of the film’s various plot elements — but Haghighi and co. achieve a startling synergy with these components producing a mind-bending cinematic experience that will leave you wondering, blissfully, what the hell just happened.
A Dragon Arrives! is at the New Zealand International Film Festival