SIFF Review: ‘A Dragon Arrives!’

Of all the films I saw at the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival, A Dragon Arrives! is the most haunting and question-raising.  The film takes place in Iran of the ‘60s during the time of the Shah.  The setting is an isolated arid region by the sea near a small village.  A man is found hanged and pronounced a suicide by the first policeman on the scene.  Another policeman is sent to investigate and realizes, by forensic evidence even I identified, that the man has been murdered.  The body is in an ark-like derelict ship next to what the villagers consider a haunted cemetery.  He decides, against the villagers’ warnings, to stay in the boat overnight deciphering diary entries written on the vessel’s walls.

In the middle of the night he experiences something terrifying.  Later he recruits some film-making friends to investigate the strange phenomenon.  The incomplete result of this film is discovered present-day and comes into the hands of this film’s director Mani Haghigi, adding verisimilitude to the story.  What unfolds is a combination ghost story, fairy tale (behold the dragon!), spy/police story, murder mystery, allegorical allusions, and ultimately, underlying it all, almost surely a commentary on the country’s society and politics.

I really enjoyed this film, but had to admit I did not have the cultural or historical keys to unlock underlying meanings.  The Iranians’ literary history goes back several thousands of years.  Allegory, allusions, illusions, and symbology all play an important role in Iranian story-telling.  In the film, there was a theater scene that made no sense to me, a bloody ritual, a ghost camel, a symbology of the number 5, and especially the dragon itself, all meant to say something.  It was also hard to understand the actions of the Shah’s secret (?) police.  Understandably, an Iranian would be much more equipped to decipher the inner meanings of the film.

Nevertheless, A Dragon Arrives! is a fine piece of storytelling that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout, and I enjoyed my attempt to interpret the movie.  The movie would well suit a film discussion group.

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: Movie Reviews