Issue 53 (2016)

Indar Djendubaev: He’s a Dragon (On–drakon, 2015)

reviewed by Beach Gray© 2016

There are two reasons why the fantasy film He’s a Dragon—targeted for pre-teens and young adults—is a worthy opportunity for an examination of the cultural context from which it emerges. The first reason is that this seemingly apolitical work of popular culture is in dialogue with the highly politicized recent art film Leviathan (dir. Andrei Zviangintsev, 2014). Specifically, He’s a Dragon transforms the image of the leviathan skeleton from a foreboding omen to a welcoming and innocuous vestige of a fantasy past. The second reason is that He’s a Dragon creates a series of fantasies for the spectator that reveal larger anxieties about life and desire in contemporary Russia, as the film participates in a global cinematic style.

on drakonThe plot is a simple one. In reverence to tradition, the maiden Miroslava is put in a canoe and pushed into the town harbor as a sacrifice to the local dragon. The townspeople in this faux-medieval Russian world are under the impression that dragons no longer exist and that the ritual is a mere formality. To their surprise, a dragon swoops down and takes Miroslava to his lair, spread out across steep-cliffed islands in the middle of a tropical sea. Miroslava finds herself in a prison on the island, with a male prisoner Arman in the adjacent cell. Arman is, of course, the dragon. He has been cursed and he struggles to remain human, instead of transforming into the dragon. Miroslava and Arman fall in love. Even after Miroslava is “rescued” from the island, she summons the dragon when the ritual is repeated in her hometown. The dragon obliges, and the two live happily ever after.

With the exception of close-ups of Miroslava and Arman, the most recurring image in the film is the skeleton of a gigantic creature that juts out of the sea. It turns out that the skeleton is that of a dragon. The islands of the living dragon’s lair are merely enormous bones. The skeleton is so large that Miroslava and Arman make a home inside the skull, which is far away from the lair. They furnish this make-shift dwelling with luxurious wreckage that has washed into the emerged carcass. The image of this “leviathan” therefore takes on a positive valence. What was once, perhaps, a frightening creature—and later a prison—has become a welcoming home and a safe haven from storms.

on drakonThe skeleton in He’s a Dragon is more than just a positive image. It also functions within the narrative to foreshadow the end of a dark period. Its double transformation—first from living beast to bones and then from skeleton to home—suggests that what was terrible and frightening will one day cease to exist and, in fact, lead the way to something better. Specifically, the ritual of virgin sacrifice and the spell that controls the dragon are both destroyed by the love between Miroslava and Arman.
In Leviathan the opposite had been true. The leviathan—both the skeleton and the whales breaching the surface of the sea—suggest that Russia’s troubled past engulfs the present moment. Leviathan underscores the tragedy of absolutist power and the powerlessness of the individual to combat that fact. In both Leviathan and He’s a Dragon the skeleton is polysemous, but in Leviathan the image is unambiguously negative and foreboding, while in He’s a Dragon it is unambiguously positive and upbeat.

One might entertain the notion that He’s a Dragon is in dialogue with Leviathan. The fantasy film suggests that tradition may be broken and the dark id of each human, represented by the dragon that Arman cannot fully control, may be redirected and transformed. In a flourish of pubescent idealism, the film puts forth romantic love as the key to changing malevolent traditions. Similar to recent Bazelevs studio productions, such as the Yolki series of films, this work is hopeful. The difference, however, is that this film in set in a fantastical historical past, removed from the social complications of contemporary Russia.

on drakonOne of the film’s central claims is that the Russian film industry contributes to world cinema while maintaining an essential Russianness. This desire comes across most clearly in sequences at the beginning and end of the film when Miroslava participates in the ritual to satisfy the dragon. The visual style has a striking similarity to the globally successful Game of Thrones miniseries (creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, 2011–present). Both works are based on a fantasy novel or series of novels; both have the same digital sheen and attention to detail, especially with regard to ornate costuming; and both are set in a faux-medieval world that operates on the same logic of the “real” world with the exception that magic is still possible, if rare. The most salient feature of this magic is the reemergence of dragons, which in both diegeses are creatures once confined to past lore, but now reappearing to help a protagonist achieve her goal of independence. In He’s a Dragon, however, the gratuitous violence and explicit sex scenes from Game of Thrones are absent, though the visual style is similar. The aspiring “Russianness” of He’s a Dragon is the presence of the Russian language and Miroslava’s elaborate wedding attire.

If Game of Thrones is targeted for a teenage and adult audience, then this film is for a significantly younger audience. With shots of Miroslava riding the dragon through craggy outcroppings at the beginning and end of the film, it would seem that one of the pleasures this film fulfills is the simulation of fun rides with complex digital sequences that would be difficult for a physical camera to shoot. He’s a Dragon is deeply confused about its target audience—it is neither quite for children nor for adults. It is something of a mash-up of Game of Thrones and How to Train Your Dragon (dirs. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010). Above all, the film promotes being Russian without contemporary Russia or even a clear Russian past. He’s a Dragon battles a perceived Russophobia as if it were intended for a global audience when, in fact, it is made for a domestic one.

Beach Gray
University of Pittsburgh

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He’s a Dragon, Russia, 2015
Color, 110 minutes
Rating: 6+
Director: Indar Djendubaev
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Natal'ia Smirnova, Igor' Tsai, Mariia Zatulovskaia, Iakov Gordin
Screenplay: Sergei Diachenko, Marina Diachenko, Indar Djendubaev, Aleksei Arsen'ev
Production Design: Grigorii Pushkin, Sergei Fevralev
Cinematography: Sergei Trofimov
Editing: Mariia Likhacheva, Iulia Batalova
Music: Simon Finley
Cast: Mariia Poezzhaeva, Matvei Lykov, Stanislav Liubshin, Ieva Andreevaite, Petr Romanov
Visual effects: Aleksandr Gorokhov, Sergei Nevshupov
Production: Bazelevs Studio

Indar Djendubaev: He’s a Dragon (On–drakon, 2015)

reviewed by Beach Gray© 2016

Updated: 04 Jul 16