A prison, inside a warship, next to a cemetery, in a desert, on an island…
It’s 1965. Special Agent Hafizi is tasked with investigating a mysterious death in the prison. With little help from the apathetic police and superstitious locals, a murder is potentially afoot, and with what little resources they have, the trio begin their search for the truth.
Then it gets weird: the film shifts to a modern-day interview with Mani Haghighi, the director of the film, talking about the long-lost audiotapes he found of Hafizi and co, and how they inspired him to make a film about their lives. The very film you’re currently watching.
It’s a basic principle of storytelling to “show, not tell”, but A Dragon Arrives! tells its story masterfully, quickly cutting to a talking head interview of someone speculating what might’ve happened to the characters, building tension for the next time you see them for yourself. Haghighi is able to maintain a dreamlike level of reality throughout by constantly being in command of the distance between the audience and the story; you’ll want to get in close, but sometimes, he won’t let you.
However, a side-effect of keeping such a stark level of detachment is that the audience never ends up seeing as much as the characters do. There are many excellent scenes that build the overarching plot, but because the audience is frequently ejected out of those moments, a sense of anticlimax follows the film until the very end.
The biggest accomplishment of this film, if it achieves nothing else, is that you can mute it and still appreciate it based just on how it looks. Describing the plot doesn’t mention just how colourful it is. Every shot is a diorama; every character, every object, every look on every face is meticulously in place, whether it’s watching a vibrant stack of balloons float away against an arid skyline, a funeral inside a cramped little hut, or the climax of the film, an impressive sequence, shot in a single long take.
Contributing to this flair are the actors, all of whom do a stupendous job. Of the main trio of investigators, the straight-laced Hafizi (Amir Jadidi) and stoic, enigmatic Behnam (Homayoun Ghanizadeh) are no match for Keyvan, portrayed by Ehsan Goodarzi; a long-haired, bespectacled, poncho-wearing weirdo, whose eccentric sense of fashion and speech shatters every expectation of this being a typical spy film, and thinly clouds his status as the film’s emotional center.
Is A Dragon Arrives! perfect? Of course not. Does the plot meander through its second act? Yes. Are there more mutilated animal corpses than speaking women? Yes, at about a 3:1 ratio. Does it seem to favour style over substance? Absolutely, but that style is so unique and awe-inspiring to watch, that it nimbly overshadows any sense of disappointment from the plot.
I am personally not familiar with Iranian cinema (one of the few films I’ve seen is Taxi, screened at MIFF 2015, which interestingly is also a faux-documentary where the director plays a fictional version of himself), but if this is the level of quality to be found, I can’t wait to experience more.
By Pedro Cooray
This review is a part of SWINE Magazine’s Melbourne International Film Festival coverage.