An uncommented effect of the multiplexes stopping running press advts. is that the ethnic titles, which they shoe horn in, are now more difficult to locate. They are often different in each location. SBS did run an interview with a promoter who is placing these in the suburbs. He's got a Samoan film screening at the moment. It would be interesting to know how that's going. The film which I tracked down to Burwood Event (blasting sound and freezing auditorium) would have played to an empty house If we hadn't shown up.
In fact Saman Moghadam's Sperm Whale 2* has had the biggest opening in Iranian film history and is all set to be their biggest earner ever.
This sequel follows the mature Roya (Mahnaz Afshar) and Arjang (Reza Attaran) from Part One driving to their beach wedding, with her having returned to Iran after her previous marriages during years in the ‘States. She relishes the prospect of playing her old wedding videos but makes the gesture of agreeing to burn them when Arjang objects. Flashbacks cover their younger selves under the restraints of eighties Iran. The couple sit watching a Betamax tape, when owning a video player was a felony and both move on the remote control leaving Roya appalled that they almost touched.
What their generation had craved was American culture. Elvis and Michael Jackson were their idols. This made them subject to police persecution.
The film’s most endearing sequence has the old gang lip synching the “Tell Me, Tell Me” number from Grease, complete with a repeat of the original choreography. At the end of a lively jumping through the fire block festival the escaping friends are stopped by a line of police and freeze into a simulation of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, moon walk and all.
All this left our hero with a charge sheet and, when he was caught wearing skinny jeans and run in for inappropriate clothing, things looked bad. He was only spared by an encounter with an old neighbour police officer he hadn’t recognised who didn’t care about regulations because he was to be sent to the front next day. This and its subsequent development is actually quite touching.
This film is totally at odds with the Iranian productions that make their way into festivals. It’s hard to believe that the Makhmalbaf clan come from the same planet, let alone the same country. Even the bright colour scheme and editing are a contrast.
Beyond that, the film’s sensitivity is something at odds with what we are used to. A joke has Arjang arrive with a knife determined to avenge himself on his more fortunate friend (he has a foreign passport and can go off to the ‘states with Roya). He curses him and his father, only to find the old man has just died and his coffin is being carried out. Or there's the scene where the film tracks back over a humiliating conversation Arjang heard after his rival’s squeeze told him that their partners were going to go off and leave them alone in the oppressive environment while they escaped to America. Turns out that the pair were actually criticising the desert.
However, we are constantly reminded of the production’s origins. They find time to abuse Saddam Hussein, the Soviet Union and Donald Trump. The women wear head scarves throughout and there is such a nice cleric who tells the wedding organiser that he doesn’t need the goon bodyguards laid on. The movie’s success indicates that this is a depiction of themselves welcome to its Iranian target audience.
It’s all good natured and occasionally agreeable and accomplished, though an unprepared audience is left feeling they could use footnotes. What is the significance of the title and the whale replica model in the lead's bedroom? Along with those off putting shifts of tone it does run a little long but the film has qualities as entertainment to go with its qualities as novelty. Whether there is an audience that will value them here remains speculative.
Sperm Whale 2 also makes an revealing contrast to the simple minded entertainment films from North Korea the festivals chose to offer us a few years back. Showing it lifts a corner of the gumnut curtain that limits our understanding of film.
* Editor’s Note: IMDb refers to this film as Sperm Whale: Roya’s Selection.