Not everything can get away with an exclamation point in the title, but the chipper punctuation of “A Dragon Arrives!” feels appropriately emphatic for a film that doesn’t announce itself timidly on any stylistic level. So eccentric, in fact, is the enticing fusion of genres, perspectives and even planes of reality in Iranian writer-director Mani Haghighi’s mocku-fantasy-folk-film-noir that a question mark — or an ellipsis, or perhaps even a hanging semicolon — would have been equally apt. Taking as its starting point a young detective’s investigation of a political prisoner’s apparent suicide on a remote Persian Gulf island, this 1960s-set tangram can subsequently be rearranged in any number of informational formations — each one as confounding as it is alluring. Hot, citrus-splashed visuals and an enthralling pop-ethnic soundtrack amp up “Dragon’s” commercial fire-breathing potential: Arthouse distributors would do best to position the pic as a high-end brainteaser, its every surface gleamingly opaque.
A pre-credit sequence situates proceedings in a genre realm that, even on its own, is a lot to take in. Young, suave detective Babak Hafizi (head-turning up-and-comer Amir Jadidi) works for the Shah of Iran’s secret police force; he’s introduced in confinement in Tehran, being interrogated by his own superior (Kamaran Safamanesh) the day after Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur’s assassination in January 1965. The questions unpick assorted curiosities and inconsistencies in one of Hafizi’s unresolved cases, whereby he was sent to the desert island of Qeshm to investigate the suspicious purported suicide of an exiled political prisoner. Flashbacks transport viewers to the so-called Valley of Stars, a terracotta wasteland where a half-built ship, stranded beside a desolate cemetery, appears haunted by spectres, while earthquakes are said to strike every time a new body is buried.
So far, so strange. Post-credits, however, Haghighi rather drastically flips the switch by designing the film as a reenactment-heavy documentary inquiry, replete with present-day talking heads and his own alleged first-hand investment in the subject. An on-screen interviewee himself, the helmer obliquely links his own grandfather Ebrahim Golestan, a leading filmmaker of the Iranian New Wave, to the case via his excerpted 1964 drama “The Brick and the Mirror” — plus an abetting character in Hafizi’s investigation, bohemian sound engineer (and supposed Golestan crew member) Keyvan Haddad (Ehsan Goudarzi). In a narrative thick with unreliable narrators and witnesses, none is more slippery than Haghighi himself: His fictional riffing on his real-life family history further fudges the border between which elements of this teasingly tall story are fact-rooted, and which are purest fantasy. (Needless to say, a “based on a true story” title card at the outset clarifies nothing.)
Together with geologist Behnam Shokouhi (Homayoung Ghanizadeh), Hafizi and Haddad further probe the manifold mysteries of Qeshm — including the missing daughter of a domineering local opthalmologist and sometime shark hunter (a combination of vocations that seems as logical as everything else in this Monument Valley-like landscape); a buried chest, later passed on to Golestan, that may well have “MacGuffin” engraved on it in Persian script; and the eponymous lurking creature, which may or may not be more than a metaphor.
Some viewers will work themselves into a state of severe agitation trying to keep pace with Haghighi’s panoply of diversionary tactics within diversions. Others may simply give in to the sensual allure of the whole contraption, as Haghighi gives lively indigenous treatment to motifs and atmospherics drawn from the Hollywood genre playbook. In his natty, trilby-topped tailoring and spotless tangerine-dream Chevy Impala, Hafizi is a picture of sleek western influence in this lore-steeped Middle Eastern territory — at a visual level alone, he symbolizes a seductive threat to preserved cultural tradition, which is perhaps tied into the film’s highly cryptic political subtext. Then again, Haghighi isn’t merely looking backwards through this period piece, the restless structural and stylistic transitions of which also suggest a fractured sense of national and spiritual identity in contemporary Iran.
Deciphering “Dragon’s” message, already something of a challenge, would be an active chore were it not so vibrantly presented. Working with a blazing paintbox of oranges and mustards, cinematographer Houman Behmanesh lends crisp, high-noon definition to an environment otherwise blurred in uncertainty, while production designer Amir Hossein Ghodsi has a field day with such waking-dream picture-book locations as the Valley’s surreal waterless shipwreck. Finally, as befits a film in which sound recording plays a significant narrative role, the pic’s sonic textures are invaluably brash: Christophe Rezai’s bold-as-brass score, in particular, marries serpentine traditional rhythms to crunching electronic hooks to infectious, suitably fiery effect.