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So many dragons, so little time

Promotional poster for “On-Drakon” or “He’s a Dragon

A Russian film about dragon lovers was a domestic dud, but has quietly gained the hearts of millions of Chinese. “On-Drakon” (or “He is a Dragon”) withstood fierce criticism from Russian critics when it came out in early 2016. Most of their complaints focused on digital art and special effects, but not on the spiritual dilemma of a princess with a crush on a foul-mannered dragon-man who spreads terror and death – and who submits entirely to his will.

As striking as the film is, with its poignant soundtrack and authentic-looking scenery, it was too conspicuously pagan for Russian audiences. I’m guessing the Orthodox are aware the winged serpent has never been on their side.

“He is a Dragon” appeals to youth who are idealistic enough to believe that true love for a satanic 200-foot Pterosaur sort of thing can be transforming (literally), even for an enraged dragon. It’s the old Heathcliff effect.

Producers didn’t expect the film to take off in China, where dragons are popular and prized – but not this kind of dragon. Spokeswoman Valeriya Dobrolyubova assumed Chinese wouldn’t identify with a dragon “portrayed as a negative character who brings evil,” contradicting the national image of the creature. Chinese dragons may look ferocious, but they’ve learned to co-exist with them. They are heavily embodied in the arts, religion and lore of China. Dragons there are domesticated signs of luck and success, making great decorations. They are close to becoming their national pets.

Russia’s “Drakon” harks back to pre-Christian legends and is set in the far past of Siberia. The movie is surprisingly Gothic and pagan. Arman, the male love interest, is darkly brooding and anguished – nothing new there. But he first appears as a dragon, dragging Princess Miroslava off in his talons. Seducing the captive princess with burning bouquets and other metaphorical symbols, she submits to his dragon/beast nature, gaining safety while selling her soul. This would remain a private affair except for the troubling scene where it becomes evident the entire kingdom has submitted to the dragon prince.

Arman, at his worst – hunting for princesses. Still scene from “He’s a Dragon.” Photo thanks to ria.ru

Miroslava is a sappy little thing with no common sense nor sympathy for the sacrificial virgins burnt alive by her lover. The terrifically handsome prince she was about to marry is left behind, wailing for her as well. The silly princess defiantly returns to her dragon and seals her fate. She seems impressed by the dragon man’s pad, his Satanic rages, and she pities his horrible character. Of course they fall in love.

None of this was very interesting, but a scene toward the end of the film was riveting. The producers hired British artist Simon Beck to make an enormous “snow dragon” on a frozen river in Siberia. A smoking smudge pot was placed in his “nostril,” and the 130-meter design was impressive. In the film, this was a sign of submission by the people to honor their new dragon ruler.

Snow dragon created by Simon beck for the movie “He is a dragon” in Siberia
From promotional photos in SiberianTimes.com

It turns out when Miroslava relents to the dragon and grants him her whole heart, everything changes. The dragon remains human, he no longer decimates the region of virgins, and they have nice little hybrid babies or something.

Viewers, especially younger ones, found the film fabulously romantic. What they didn’t notice (judging by their comments) were the jarring implications of submitting to evil or to superior strength, fear and fatalism, not to mention dumping a perfectly lovely fiancé for a big lizard, and rejecting God, family and country.

In Western lore, dragons were always associated with skullduggery or with Satan himself – from Genesis to St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf, and the Arthurian Legends. The nasty creatures were battled by pre-Christian Greeks as well in “Jason and the Argonauts.”

(Below: Excerpt from “He is a Dragon.” Princess Miroslava sings “Dragon inside me” song)

“He’s a Dragon” is only a one film, but its popularity in China and dragons popping up like poison mushrooms can’t be just a coincidence. For no apparent reason, dragons have scored a huge public relations coup over the last few decades. They’ve morphed into something cute and cuddly, or magnificent, or in the case of “On-Drakon” something to be revered and worshiped.

Children brought up with Disney’s barnyard of fire-breathers are on speaking terms with the likes of “Elliot,” “Mushu” and “The Reluctant Dragon.” Why, they’re absolutely adorable! Poke them and they’ll squeak. So loving dragons is a “thing” now – but why?

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Noble prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro featured a dragon in his 2015 fantasy novel, “The Buried Giant.” One of his themes was “collective memory” or how civilizations deal with unpleasant events – by forgetting in this case. Collective memory can be called other things, but it’s an explanation of how things may occur all at once (such as dragons on every street corner) without plots or vast conspiracies.

The Bible calls such things the movements of powers and principalities, and they are attributed to supernatural clashes of good and evil, or to God’s will. Even Karl Jung agreed with the supernatural element in this, via something he called “synchronicity,” or when things happened on all sides, making meaningful patterns. This was evidence for his theory of the Collective Unconscious. Germans have a phrase that incorporates the idea as well: “zeitgeist” or spirt of the age or times.

Only one reviewer saw a little more than special effects in “He’s a Dragon.” Beach Gray of the University of Pittsburgh claims the film foreshadows the end of a dark period. “Its double transformation … suggests that what was terrible and frightening will one day cease to exist and, in fact, lead the way to something better.” Christians believe that as well, but our transformation comes through Christ, while this one is looking conspicuously like the other side.

“He’s a Dragon” become the second most popular movie in China on its opening day, which is quite a feat. A sequel is planned between joint Chinese and Russian producers, and it will be filmed entirely in China. Will this one show the entire world submitting? We’ll have to wait and see.