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Movie Crash Course: Storm Over Asia

Well, now, this wasn’t bad at all.

Produced in 1928, Storm Over Asia is ostensibly a Soviet Propaganda film – but in this case the propaganda actually takes more of a back seat to a genuinely affecting story and some surprisingly sensitive depictions of nomadic Siberian culture.  Our hero is a young Mongolian hunter and herdsman, the son of a renowned but ailing trapper who’s caught himself a beautiful silver fox skin. Dad is too ill to take it to the trade post himself, so he sends Junior to sell it in his stead – charging him not to take any less than 500 “silvers” for it.  “Enough for food for five months!” the family crows again and again.  Just as he’s about to ride off, his mother calls him back and gives him a protective amulet, one that’s just dropped out of the pocket of a visting monk.  ….Sure, she could have given it back to the monk, and did try to, but the monk actually tried to steal the fox pelt first before being chased out in disgrace, so screw him.

The young hunter heads off to the trading post expecting a thoroughly routine transaction at the colonial trading post. However, the trader overseeing things is a bit of a difficult character (or, more accurately, a greedy bigoted jerk) and pays our hero a mere pittance for the pelt.

Our hero understandably does not like this one bit, and objects.  The trader refuses to deal further. Our hero protests further. And things get so out of hand that blood is spilled.  Our hero’s friends help him slip away unnoticed just as the Cossack soldiers are riding in to keep peace, and they send him away into the mountains, urging him to stay safe.

The rest of the tale for our hero unfolds as a series of blind chance. He stumbles upon a firefight between Soviet snipers fighting Allied troops during the Soviet Civil War, saves a sniper’s life and is adopted into the Soviet cause. He falls into the hands of the Allies, who sentence him to execution because the only word in English he understands is “Moscow”.  He is then rescued when a soldier idly examines the amulet he’d gotten from his mother, and discovers it’s an ancient scroll claiming that he’s a descendant of Genghis Khan. The Allied soldiers decide to turn that to their advantage, treating his wounds (the rescue sadly came after he was shot) and making him a figurehead leader of the Mongols, using him to persuade the people to do their will.

Our hero – whose name we never learn – is a perfectly wide-eyed naif through most of the film, bumbling into events and acting purely on what he feels is right. He knows nothing of the Russian Revolution; he only saved the Soviet sniper because he was about to be pushed off a cliff.  Most of the time when others speak to him, he just looks back at them with a mild, uncomprehending smile.  But the film has the sensitivity never to treat him as a fool – simply as someone who is in a completely foreign world, and at the mercy of those who are out to exploit him.

Even better, the film went out of its way to treat his world fairly. There’s a fascinating sequence about midway through, when the Allied commandant in charge of the region pays a diplomatic visit to the palace of a nearby lama on a Buddhist feast day. After a pointed sequence showing both the commandant and his wife dressing in their finery intercut with shots of the Buddhist monks doing the same, the commandant’s entourage arrives at the lama’s compound, are welcomed with great and reverent pomp, and are ushered into the presence of the lama – who looks a little different than he did the last time they saw him.

The lama has recently transferred to his next body, his advisor drily informs the comandant.  And while he can’t talk, “he still sees all, hears all, and knows all.”

A lesser movie would have shown the commandant scoffing at this, or his own entourage snickering. But instead, the commandant salutes the child lama with all the dignity befitting the occasion.  “We regret to hear of your recent passing,” he says, with a bow, “and welcome with joy your new rebirth!”

To be fair, the scene is most likely meant to play up the folly of both religion and colonial politics, since while the whole scene is playing out, the Mongol peasants are trying to defend themselves against a cattle raid conducted by the commandant’s men. But I was so struck by the depiction of a colonizing Western man treating an Eastern religion seriously instead of just brushing it off.  It makes the commandant’s decision to turn our hero into a puppet ruler even more mean-spirited.

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