Monday, October 12, 2015

Zan-e Khoon Asham, aka Female Vampire (Iran, 1967)

It is impossible to discuss Zan-e Khoon Asham without making at least passing reference to last year’s festival favorite A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both are Iranian films, one made in 1967 and the other in 2014, which make lady vampires their subject matter. Making any parallels beyond that, however, is somewhat problematic. While Girl is an artistic film rich with formal beauty and layered metaphor, Zan-e Khoon Asham, at least in a narrative sense, is clearly something different-- while its aesthetic ambitions are rendered difficult to gauge due to the available print of it looking like it was videotaped off the screen of a television that was submerged in a dirty swimming pool.

The film begins with big city hotshot Jahangir (played by Mostafa Oskooyi, the film’s director) arriving from Tehran in the city of Nishapur, where he spends the night with old friend Bahram (Mehdi Fat’hi) in the orchard of Mashti, a kindly old farmer. It is here that Jahangir first lays eyes on and gets royally sprung by Mashti’s teenage daughter Golnar (Mahindokht). Bahram tells him that she is bad news; her brother was said to have been taken by a jinn and she herself is suspected to be possessed as a result. Jahangir then helpfully explains to Bahram the western notion of the vampire. Yeah, like that, he basically replies.

Still, it seems that no amount of dire portents can quell Jahangir’s horniness, and so he arranges a late night tryst with Golnar at the tomb of Omar Khayyam where, if I am interpreting the suggestively evasive camera maneuvers correctly, he takes her virginity. The next morning he breezily takes off back for Tehran, promising the naïve Golnar that he will marry her upon his return. This despite her protestations that she might be pregnant.

If it has not already been made blindingly clear that Jahangir is a cad of the first order, it will be when he returns to Tehran and engages with a colleague in a dialogue about the place of an ugly woman in society that is straight out of In the Company of Men. He then makes short work of seducing Parvin (Homayoondokht), the new wife of another associate. Before long it is quite obvious that he has no intention of returning to Golnar, much less in marrying her. This is not lost on Golnar, and a castigating letter soon arrives from Bahram telling Jahangir that the heartbroken girl has wandered out into the wilderness and been found dead. Oh, and there’s also something about two bite marks on her neck.

No sooner does the sun set in the sky than Jahangir is confronted by the vampirized Golnar, who warns him that she will kill any woman that he falls in love with. Then Parvin vanishes and Jahangir, as the prime suspect in her disappearance, is forced to flee from the police. Once apprehended, he is thrown into a darkened cell, where he is soon cornered by, not only Golnar, but Parvin, who has also turned into a vengeful bloodsucker. The scene, it has to be said, is quite chilling, although it is hard to say how much of that is due to cinematographer Maziar Parto’s shadowy compositions and how much is due to Zan-e Khoon Asham’s current distressed state. The film, after all, is something of a ghost in itself, which makes watching it tantamount to a kind of occular haunting.

If the film’s titles are to be believed, Zan-e Khoon Asham was the first feature produced by Iran’s Theater Anahita. This sounds about right, because, like many maiden efforts of nascent film industries, it often seems more invested in the simple act of visual documentation than of storytelling, bursting at the seams with ancillary distractions like musical numbers, recitations of classical poetry and one very long wedding sequence. Because of this, the film is helped by its ravaged condition as much as it is hurt by it. That murkiness and erosion serves as a constant reminder to us of its rarity, and thus helps to justify our interest despite its digressions.

That said, I’m afraid I’m going to have to spoil Zan-e Khoon Asham’s ending, as to review the film without discussing it would be irresponsible. In short, it is a narrative cop-out of almost admirable audacity. You see, it turns out that Golnar and Parvin are not really vampires at all, but just pretending to be vampires in order to teach Jahangir a much needed lesson. Of course, for them to pull off this ruse has also required the participation of virtually all of Jahangir’s friends and associates, as well as many of the random people that he has encountered since returning to Tehran.

As insulting as this preposterous reveal is, even more so is the filmmakers’ assumption that Jahangir being pranked in this manner is enough of a karmic payback for us to forgive his transgressions and accept him taking Golnar, the young girl he ruthlessly exploited and abandoned, into his arms for a climactic smooch as some kind of happy ending. By no means is Jahangir an asshole, they seem to be saying, but rather a lovable rogue. And this brings to mind another parallel between this film and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as well as a key difference: Both films address the treatment of women in Iranian society. Girl, however, does so in the form of commentary, while Zan-e Khoon Asham merely serves as evidence.

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