Storm Over Asia

With live accompaniment by Yat-Kha

Directed by V. I. Pudovkin
(1928, USSR)
Silent, B&W, 140-min

October 6, 2001, 8 pm
Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA

In recent years I have had the pleasure of experiencing a number of excellent live music performances accompanying silent films: The Club Foot Orchestra's shadowy tonal palette mirroring the moody expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Yakov Gubanov's supremely romantic adaptation of Debussy's "La plus que lente" for the bittersweet Pandora's Box, the percussive dynamo of the Alloy Orchestra chugging alongside the harrowing antics of Buster Keaton. Yet none has been so definitive, so organically complementary, so impossible to imagine the movie without, as Tuvan throat-singing rock band Yat-Kha's performance for Pudovkin's epic-on-the-steppe Storm Over Asia.

Was it the loping rhythm of the igil (horsehead fiddle) as Mongolian riders galloped across the vast rolling landscape? The airy overtones of khöömei throat singing evoking the solitude and persistence of human existence among the empty wind-raked hills? The clanging cymbals and the double-bass growling (kargiraa) of the Buddhist monks during a ritual feast? The band members' whispered lip-synching in their own language of an imagined dialogue as the hunter hero bids farewell to his parents? Was it the thundering of Albert Kuvezin's distorted electric guitar urging on the angry horde to the climactic uprising sequence?

To understand the natural affinity between the film and the band, one needs to examine the bare bones of Tuvan history. Nomadic since several centuries BC, Tuvans came under the control of Genghis Khan in 1207 and remained under Mongolian and Chinese rule until 1911. Occupied by Russia in 1914, it then became a Soviet satellite in 1921 after the Reds won the civil war. In the maelstrom of World War II, Tuva was annexed by USSR, and today remains a part of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Storm Over Asia was shot in 1928 in Tuva when it had a measure of autonomy, although the story takes place during the Russian civil war. Pudovkin filmed extensive footage of local life--including Buddhist ceremonies--providing invaluable ethnographic records of cultural traditions that would, ironically, be suppressed by the Soviets after annexation. I imagine that Pudovkin must have told his party bosses that his film would commemorate the heroic contribution of the Red Russian partisans in overthrowing the oppressive capitalist occupiers (depicted as British in the movie). There are, in fact, a few such scenes. However, whatever his original intentions were, the film seen now in its restored director's version is clearly a paean to self-determination and autonomy for Central Asia. It is no wonder then that the communist censors recut the film extensively and finally banned it altogether. (The British were also incensed and edited their own version by turning the bad guys into White Russians.)

To have Yat-Kha provide live accompaniment to this newly resurrected film was a stroke of genius. Other Tuvan bands might have done just as well for the slice-of-local-life scenes in the first half, such as the premier folkloric group Huun-Huur-Tu (in which Yat-Kha leader Kuvezin was an early member). However, as we followed the evolution of our hero from a hapless hunter who is cheated by an evil capitalist fur trader, to a hapless Red partisan fighter who is captured and sentenced to death, to a hapless puppet ruler who finally explodes in a frenzy of superhuman strength and leads his people in rebellion, the extreme dynamic range of electric instruments became necessary to keep up with the inevitable crescendo of the drama. In the final, over-the-top, furious montage sequence in which the massing horse riders literally transformed into a wind storm that blew away the oppressors, the band's hard-driving blast of rock-'n'-roll transcended cliche to provide a cathartic kick-ass finish.

Kuvezin, who as a "subversive" punk rocker had attracted the attentions of the communist ideology police, also injected timely doses of levity using riffs from the well-known rock repertoire, such as Pink Floyd's "Money" (entrance of the fur trader) and Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" (the enraged general's head framed by rising smoke). After having seen this film with Yat-Kha's performance, it is difficult to imagine how else it could have been accompanied. By a wheezy Wurlitzer upping the emotional ante by a succession of half-step modulations? A tinkly upright piano playing ragtime and early jazz stylings? An astringent string ensemble performing a Shostakovitch score?

Storm Over Asia's new lease on life was orchestrated by Realityfilm from surviving footage provided by Film Preservation Associates and the British Film Institute J. Paul Getty Conservation Center. Storm Over Asia's U.S. tour with Yat-Kha is now over. Let's hope they schedule a return trip so that more people will get a chance to experience first-hand this Molotov cocktail of a warning against all imperialist oppressors of the world.

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