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STORM OVER ASIA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Valeri Inkishanov, I. Dedintsev, Aleksandr Chistyakov, Viktor Tsoppi, Anel Sudakevich
Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English intertitles
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Image
Features: none
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: May 18, 1999

"O my people, rise in your ancient strength and free yourselves!"

Film *** 1/2

During 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.

One 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.

Storm over Asia (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.

The 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.

Historically 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Pudovkin's 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 British occupation.

Storm over Asia's 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.

Curiously, 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.

Pudovkin's 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.

Video **

Storm 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 ***

The 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 Orchestra.

But 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 silent film.

Features (zero stars)

Absolutely nothing, just chapter stops.  And the film will start automatically when you plug in the DVD.  It's a shame.

Summary:

Pudovkin's Storm over Asia is a meditation on greed and the struggle for justice.  It is a powerful example of Russian montage and a visually stunning film as well.  Silent film enthusiasts may do well to check it out!