A Dragon Arrives

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Directed by Mani Haghighi

Berlinale review

Not so much a warning, more a piece of friendly advice – before settling down to watch Mani Haghighi’s entertaining and original film A Dragon Arrives!, complete the following: Go to the toilet, provide enough hot and cold drinks, plus snacks for a couple of hours’ viewing, turn off your phone and do not move from your seat. Why? ‘Cause this film demands attention and concentration.

There are plots, sub-plots, double crossing, brutal murders, possibly a monster, a story line which shifts over a 50 years period – oh, and director Haghighi offers his own views on how the film is structured, turning the film into a pseudo-documentary. It’s diverse, challenging and worthwhile. Stay seated.

To begin at the beginning, it’s January 23rd 1965, the day after the Iranian prime minister was shot in front of parliament. Detective Babak Hafizi (Amir Jadidi) is experiencing a dose of secret police interrogation tactics aided and abetted by his boss Major Jahangiri (Kamran Safamanesh). A murder has taken place on the remote island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf. The murder scene: a large rotting wooden ship, next to a cemetery in the desert. Yep, a boat in the middle of the desert. Hafizi dutifully investigates how an exiled political prisoner has met his death. What really happened when the murder was investigated? The interrogators hope to find out.

"Houman Behmanesh's photography captures the searing heat, desert backdrops and bizarre flawless detail."
“Houman Behmanesh’s photography captures the searing heat, desert backdrops and bizarre setting…in flawless detail.”

Once inside the boat, a man is found hanged. The corpse is buried in the local cemetery, conveniently less than 50 yards away, and the trouble begins. The local gravedigger explains, when a body is buried the earth opens up its jaws. Beware. Hafizi decides to spend the night alone in a creepy ship waiting for…something to happen. The night doesn’t disappoint – he’s thrown out of bed by an earthquake, or the earth’s jaws opening?

Just about now Haghighi appears talking about a film his grandfather made in 1964, and I’m not sure if the film has jumped or I’ve lost the plot. No, it’s all part of the plan, although it takes a few minutes to work out the shift. Back at the station in Tehran, our detective is set on discovering what is going on in and around the landlocked boat. He recruits geologist Behnam Shokouhi (Homayoun Ghanizadeh) and sound engineer Keyvan Haddad (Ehsan Goudarzi) returning the crime scene, without his boss’s approval. The boat has writings, messages, signs, symbols patched throughout its internal wooden walls. What do they mean? All the indicators suggest the events are true. Locals are interviewed, verifying there is evil in the graveyard. An old rusty box is found. Could this provide answers or more confusion?

For sure, the whodunit theme intermingled with flashbacks, explanations and narrative cul-de-sacs won’t be to everyone’s liking. With Haghighi’s playful, teasing style, it’s one of those films which probably requires two or three viewings to fully absorb. Houman Behmanesh’s photography captures the searing heat, desert backdrops and bizarre setting of a boat without water in flawless detail. However, real plaudits go to Christophe Rezai whose soundtrack supports the film’s pace perfectly. From the gentility of traditional strings and voices, he crashes into scenes taking the story along with pulsating hooks and beats. His music enhances a film worth viewing more than once.

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(UK & Ireland only)

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