STORM OVER ASIA
Review by Ed Nguyen
Valeri Inkishanov, I. Dedintsev, Aleksandr Chistyakov, Viktor Tsoppi, Anel
Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English intertitles
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: May 18, 1999
my people, rise in your ancient strength and free yourselves!"
the silent era, the Russian directors were masters of the montage style.
They believed that montage was the foundation of film art and that by
utilizing strong editing techniques, they could recount their stories through a
juxtaposition of shots that would visually convey a subtext or subtly
communicate the film's themes. The
construction of these sequences often made the imagery of the Russian silent
films quite amazing to watch. Even
today, such films as Battleship Potemkin
or Mother remain very powerful, thanks
to their montage editing.
of the acknowledged masters of this style was Vsevolod Pudovkin.
Unlike his compatriots, Pudovkin used his montage technique to illustrate
humanistic, emotional stories which unfolded in a slow, deliberate pace.
His films often revolved around a protagonist with whom audiences could
identify emotionally, as in his masterpiece Mother
(1926) or in Storm over Asia (1928).
One of Pudovkin's major influences, surprisingly, was the American
director D.W. Griffith, and Pudovkin was particularly dazzled by the thematic
editing of Griffith's remarkably ambitious Intolerance
(1916). Pudovkin would eventually
write a series of theoretical pamphlets concerning film technique and editing
which, along with his films of the 1920's, propelled him to the summit of Soviet
cinema alongside Sergei Eisenstein and Aleksandr Dovzhenko.
(a.k.a. The Heir to Genghis Khan) was
Pudovkin's last silent film. Photographed
principally in Mongolia, his film utilized the breath-taking natural scenery,
from the vast, open landscapes to the desolate stretches of mountainous ranges,
to create an aura of a distant and foreign world. Though set shortly after the conclusion of the first World
War, Storm over Asia focused mainly
upon the tribulations of a young Mongolian hunter, Bair (Inkishanov).
His world is an isolated one, and when we initially meet him, he lives a
simple existence on an arid steppe far removed from civilization.
Fellow traders have traveled several days across the largely untouched
open country to reach his home. They
wish to bring Bair's father along their journey to the bazaar to sell their
furs, but the father is too ill to travel.
Instead, Bair accompanies the traders with his father's instructions to
sell their prized catch, a silver fox fur, for no less than 500 silver pieces.
bazaar is a busy Oriental marketplace. Native
vendors and street entertainers abound, and the local trading post is run by men
foreign to these parts. Though not
identified as such, the foreigners are clearly British merchants, who in their
avarice routinely swindle the local traders, buying the traders' furs for a mere
fraction of their actual value. The
Mongolian hunter, forced to sell to one such greedy British merchant, receives a
mere palmful of coins for his precious pelt.
Enraged, he attacks the merchant, and a mass riot quickly ensues.
during the Russian Civil War (1917-22), Northern Tibet was occupied by British
troops. In the film, the merchants
are protected by this British occupational force, which quickly suppresses the
uprising and demands the surrender of the "criminal" Bair.
Bair is thus forced to flee into the mountains, where he encounters a
band of Bolshevik partisans intent on resisting the British.
Bair is a peaceful and quiet man, but his anger at the unjust British
treatment of his people complies him to join the partisans.
Bair is eventually caught by the British. Though
sentenced to death, he is spared through the hands of fate, for he has in his
possession a genuine document declaring its bearer to be a direct descendant of
Genghis Khan. I will not reveal how
he came to own such a sacred document, but nevertheless, it saves his life.
The British commanders decide instead to use Bair's apparent ancestry to
suit their needs, installing him as a puppet ruler to gain better control of the
people. Yet, in doing so, they provide Bair with the recognition and
power to avenge the injustices he has seen inflicted upon his people.
The remainder of the film will build to the inevitable climatic clash
between the British and the Mongolian people.
pacing throughout Storm over Asia
alternates between a serene, mediated calm and a frenzied blur of action.
The bazaar riot (reminiscent of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship
Potemkin) and the mountain clashes between the partisans and the British
forces are merely a few of the tour de force examples of montage editing in the
film. Frequently, Pudovkin's usage
of montage instills a raw, kinetic power into his scenes that heightens their
tension through the dynamic interrelation of their rapid collision of images.
The best segment, however, is one which has been often excised from
American showings of the film. It
is a sequence involving a British general's visit to the recently reincarnated
Dalai Lama in an effort to curry favor with the people.
Boldly edited and featuring exotic locales and traditional dances and
costumes, it is the centerpiece of the film.
Although the sequence may initially seem tangential to the plot, it in
fact provides the heart of the film, alluding to the deeply spiritual beliefs
that bond the Mongolian people together. That
bond will help them to ultimately unite under Bair's leadership, and the Mongol
Horde will be reborn by the film's conclusion to literally storm over the
conclusion is an allegorical one rather than realistic one.
It is a call to arms to remove from power those who would steal from and
take advantage of the people. The
film's setting may be Mongolia, and its people may be non-Russians, but as with
most Soviet films of this era, Storm over
Asia has a not-so-subtle political agenda.
It celebrates the fight of the common man against a powerful oppressor.
In this case, that struggle is symbolized by the lone Mongolian hunter
who ascends in power (witness the alternate title for the film) to challenge the
exploitation of his people by unjust rulers (in this case, the British).
His plight is paralleled to the struggle of the Bolsheviks of this era to
transform Russia from an imperial power into a socialist one.
It is not by accident that the film's partisans "listen to
Moscow," as the intertitles proclaim several times.
in its initial release, Storm over Asia
drew angry remarks from Soviet critics. They
complained that the film was not Russian enough and did not deal with Soviet
themes, which made it an unsuitable film for propaganda.
Such comments were a harbinger of changes on the horizon.
career declined shortly after the release of Storm over Asia through no fault of his own.
To some degree, the advent of the sound film limited the scope of montage
as a narrative style. But more importantly, the increasing limitations imposed by
party officials on Soviet film directors by the 1930's severely interfered with
the directors' artistic ambitions. Though
Pudovkin continued to make films well into the sound era, he rarely again
achieved the virtuosity displayed in his silent films, which had so brilliantly
showcased the potential of montage. Pudovkin's
legacy persists thanks to his silent films, of which Storm
over Asia remains one of the finest Russian silent films.
over Asia is
shown in a black & white, full-screen presentation created from a 35mm
master. It is shown at the proper
projection speed. Although the film
is fairly dusty and scratchy with some occasionally mild nitrate film
deterioration, it is nothing out of the ordinary for a silent film. On the plus side, the image possesses great clarity and
detail with solid contrast levels, and the frame is usually stable.
Fans of the film will be thrilled to learn that this DVD edition is also
roughly 1/2 hour longer than most previous US video editions, with much of that
length involving the Dalai Lama sequence.
audio is presented in Dolby digital stereo 2.0. While not particularly forceful or dynamic, it still serves
the film well. Storm over Asia is, of course, a silent film, so the audio is made
up entirely of Timothy Brock's score, performed by the Olympia Chamber
what a score! I like I like!
The typical piano and string quartet which usually appear on silent film
scores has been partially supplanted here by an atypical Asian music score
played on traditional Oriental instruments.
It is a great score by composer Timothy Brock and has a lyrical, soothing
lull that captures the otherworldly spirit of a foreign culture in a bygone era.
It is one of the better pairing of score and image that I have seen in a
nothing, just chapter stops. And
the film will start automatically when you plug in the DVD.
It's a shame.