Saturday 10 October 2020

Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976)

The story behind the magnificent 4K restoration of The Chess Game of the Wind is arguably more interesting than the film itself: Mohammad Reza Aslani's debut feature endured a disastrous premiere at the 1976 edition of the Tehran International Film Festival, and the film was subsequently yanked from both the festival and public view.  To add insult to injury, the film was then banned in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1978—not that it needed any government assistance when it came so slipping into obscurity. For the next four decades, the film was largely considered to be lost, save for a very distressed VHS copy that changed hands between those sufficiently determined to dig out this holy grail of Iranian cinema.  The possibilliy of a "proper" version of this lost film ever turning up seemed less than remote, but in 2015 director Aslani was visiting a a flea market when he stumbled across the original negatives, which he duly purchased.  Aslani then sent the reels to France, where they were restored thanks to funds from the George Lucas Family Foundation.   

The Chess Game of the Wind, variously known as Chess of the Wind (the title it plays under at the London Film Festival, where it screens from today until Tuesday), A Game of Chess Lost to the Wind and Shatranj-e baad (Farsi), centres on a wealthy, Qajar dynasty-era family squabbling over a large inheritance, and as such plays along the lines of Rian Johnson's recent smash Knives Out, which screened at last year's LFF.  Although The Chess Game of the Wind contains far less humour than Johnson's enjoyable (if hugely overrated) film, there are some striking similarities between the two movies, including the significant role played by servants as the story twists its way to its climax, not to mention the lengths those circling the honey pot will go to in order to secure what they see as being rightfully theirs.  The Chess Game of the Wind features a dank, creepy basement littered with barrels of acid, so it's not too surprising to find that not all of these characters make it to the end—what was it Chekhov said about a gun?

One way in which The Chess Game of the Wind most definitely doesn't resemble Knives Out is in its accessibility; Aslani's film proves a difficult one to get a grip on, but it may well be that things become slightly clearer on subsequent viewings.  While obviously set many decades before the time in which it was made, the film was presumably a commentary on a particular section of 1970s Iranian society, one whose lives would be changed considerably once the Shah was overthrown.  Thus, the film serves as both a snapshot of pre-revolution Iran and a reminder of a time in which such a project could be made in that country; just a couple of years later, the film's lack of Islamic content cemented its place in the cinematic wilderness.

The Chess Game of the Wind, one of only two features directed by Aslani (the other being 2008's The Green Fire), stands one of the the best recent examples of a film being pulled back from the brink of extinction, and to go from that perilous situation to this incredible print is little short of miraculous.  Sometimes, restored versions of movies fail to produce a significant improvement, but the difference between the old and new prints of this film—and I've seen the creaky VHS copy that was once the only option—really is like night and day.  The Chess Game of the Wind film deserves to be seen simply on the basis of its remarkable, unlikely rescue, and while there is certainly a most handsome movie in there, the content will most likely remain overshadowed by the sheer improbability of its survival.

Darren Arnold