‘A Dragon Arrives!’ (‘Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad!’): Berlin Review

A Dragon Arrives still 2 - Amir Jadidi, Nader Fallah - H 2016
Courtesy of Abbas Kosari
An entertaining, mind-bending wild camel chase.

Director Mani Haghighi’s noirish ghost story questions Iranian history.

Puzzling yet thoroughly entertaining, Mani Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives! (Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad!) lands somewhere between a mockumentary, a ghost story and a hard-boiled detective yarn, with a pinch of Indiana Jones tossed in. Set on the surreal-looking desert island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf, which can double for Monument Valley should the latter ever sink into the sands, it playfully throws a handful of characters into a search for some incredible truth that supposedly lies buried in a haunted cemetery.

Of the many questions the film gives rise to, the most difficult one to answer is whether all this has a hidden meaning. Politics? Oil? The rise of Islam? The language of allegory being as veiled as it is in Iran, it’s probably best to just sit back and enjoy the ride in detective Babak Hafizi’s bright-orange Impala.

The Match Factory release made a splashy bow in competition at Berlin, a big step up for a director whose offbeat social comedies Men at Work and Modest Reception screened in the festival's Forum section. Dragon is a lot of fun, but probably too chock-full of oblique references to local politics, history and even cinema to make deep inroads outside of Iran. Though it would take multiple viewings to tease out all the plot points, it should entice more adventurous viewers with its twists and turns paced with a lively, driving rhythm.

It’s 1964 and detective Hafizi (suave newcomer Amir Jadidi) is in trouble. He has been drugged and abducted by his own agency, and is being interrogated by his implacable boss, Major Jahangiri (Kamran Safamanesh), about what exactly transpired on the island of Qeshm.

Things are not as they seem, however, because we are soon told that Babak and Jahangiri are actually counterspies who have infiltrated the agency, a stand-in for SAVAK, the Shah’s dread secret police network. They are good guys who distribute information indiscriminately to all the country’s opposition parties.

In any case, Hafizi looks extremely hot in a Blues Brothers suit and hat and that amazing orange Chevy when he turns up to investigate the suicide of a political prisoner sent into exile on the island. Call it a flashback, described by a range of unreliable off-screen narrators.

Accompanied by local gumshoe Charaki (Ali Bagheri), he finds the dead man still hanging from a rope aboard the rusty ship he has made his home. Oddly, the ship is nowhere near water but is in the middle of a sandy cemetery, but that’s another story.

Hafizi realizes at once the man has been murdered, but that’s the least of the mysteries that begin to unfold. During the night, after the corpse is buried in the ancient cemetery, an earthquake knocks Hafizi out of bed. Qeshm has had major quakes before, but how can they be limited to just one cemetery? As a local explains, when a corpse is buried, the earth opens its jaws wide. Superstition? Metaphor?

But on we go. Hafizi needs experts who can explain to him what happened, and through another member of his group, the beautiful spy-turned-theater actress Shahrzad (Kiana Tajammol), he finds them. An eccentric hippie sound engineer, Keyvan (a long-haired Ehsan Goudarzi) and his cool geologist pal Behnam (Homayoun Ghanizadeh) arrive with earthquake-testing apparel. Apart from anything else, Keyvan’s psychedelic look is a little disturbing, as it obviously post-dates 1964.

Haghighi himself appears on screen to reference an excerpt from a black-and-white movie, The Brick and the Mirror, directed by his grandfather Ebrahim Golestan in 1964. There’s also the matter of a rusty box found in grandpa’s house, that first appears Qeshm. Then he sends his film team out to interview "witnesses" to the story he’s telling, as though it was all real and not just a rollicking good tale well told.

Houman Behmanesh's high-contrast lighting gives the island story an intense look, while Amir Hossein Ghosdsi's spare production design lends an exotic touch, as in the interior of the ship whose walls are covered in Persian writing. Christophe Rezai's soundtrack is a wonderful combo of traditional sounds and Western genre rhythms.

To dispel some of the film’s deliberate confusion, a number of random dates are mentioned corresponding to nothing. No prime minister was shot in front of Parliament on Jan. 23, 1965, or on any other date in Iran. 

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Dark Precursor Productions in association with Crossfade Films
Cast: Amir Jadidi, Homayoun Ghanizadeh, Ehsan Goudarzi, Kiana Tajammol, Nader Fallah, Ali Bagheri, Kamran Safamanesh, Javad Ansari, Shahin Karimi
Director-screenwriter-producer: Mani Haghighi
Executive producers: Mehdi Davari, Chavosh Shirani, Lili Golestan, Taranesh Alidoosti, Alireza Bazel, Mani Haghighi 

Director of photography: Houman Behmanesh
Production designer: Amir Hossein Ghodsi
Costume designer: Negar Neati
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Music: Christophe Rezai
World sales: The Match Factory

Not rated, 108 minutes