APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IRON MASK (2019)

Тайна печати дракона; AKA Viy 2

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DIRECTED BY: Oleg Stepchenko

FEATURING: Xingtong Yao, , , Jason Flemyng, Yuri Kolokolnikov

PLOT: “Master” has been chained in the Tower of London under the watchful eye of warden James Hook; meanwhile, in the Far East, the Great Dragon—whose eyelashes are the roots of the healing tea—is imprisoned by the evil Witch; meanwhile, accompanying the British cartographer, Jonathan Green, is the recently released Cheng Lan, Master’s daughter, who with the help of Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, plots to save the Great Dragon from the Witch’s evil clutches.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: If the plot description doesn’t convince you, Iron Mask benefits from additional anomalies that make it “weird by a thousand cuts”. It’s a Russian-Chinese co-production for which it seems the Shaw Brothers have been resurrected to put together the most swashbuckling, uncannily-imperfect adventure possible for subtly propagandistic global distribution.

COMMENTS: Let me be clear from the outset that I did not go into Iron Mask with the intention of ever really talking about it, but what unfolded felt simultaneously familiar, bizarre, original, and derivative. Being something of a “Cold Warrior” growing up, I raised one eyebrow when I saw just how many Chinese production companies had a hand in this. The other followed suit when I then saw how many Russian production companies were involved as well. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how this big-budget, brightly-colored nonsense unspooled (seeing as I knew this was a Lions Gate production), but the experience of watching two hours of stylistic gears not quite clicking, dubbed vocals not quite making sense, and the joy the filmmakers obviously had for their dwarf overwhelmed me.

The plot. Oh, the plot. The plot write-up is one of my favorite sections. I know it’s a redundancy, and takes up valuable analysis time, but I like to relate a movie’s story in my words. This one, I don’t think I can—a sentiment I doubt I could change even if I’d seen the movie to which this is, apparently, a sequel. I described it over the telephone to a friend and the number of “What?”s building into “What!?“s was both satisfying and reassuring. This collision of narrative thefts would require at least a dozen designations from the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index. Suffice to say Chinese citizens are poor and oppressed, British citizens are foppish and eccentric, Russians are drunk and Cossack-y (redundant?), and a story isn’t helped when the English dub of the heroine is outsourced to the most Karen-y sounding actress I’ve had the mispleasure of hearing.

Iron Mask hits all the notes of a 1970s PG-rated Disney feature, but five decades late. The English title makes almost no sense, although there is a character in an iron mask: our hapless Peter I, imprisoned for some unclear reason. But worry not, he proves his identity to the sailors on a Russian ship by saving them during a thunder storm. (“I’ve never seen such seamanship! Only Peter the Great could have saved us,” remarks the first mate.) The Russian Imperialist nostalgia and the heroicism-with-Chinese-characteristics flood this uncanny valley. Even the credits join in on this off-kilter trip, with the band “Ecosystem of a Down” mentioned in the soundtrack.

The great Arnold Schwarzenegger is having fun, at least, relishing his opportunity to be neither the Terminator nor the governor of California (showing off his weapon collection, he proudly states, “Here is the sword of King Arthur! Think about that!“). Appearing early on, his Tower of London warden flicked the first switch in my “This isn’t right…” control panel. One by one, the whole array lit up. From the mad pacing I’ve only seen in Russian action films, to the spiritual tea-dragon ballad from the peasants, to the dwarf ship’s captain included for comic relief, to the truly out-of-the-blue Taxi Driver reference, all the way through to the scuba-Cossack sneak attack on the electro-mechanical proxy dragon, Iron Mask is an intense ratcheting of incongruity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense in this world, where narrative logic is a fictional concept and the only thing weirder than the story is the preposterously terrible dubbing.”–Tom Beasley, Vulture Hound (contemporaneous)

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