‘Corn Island’: Karlovy Vary Review

Corn Island Still - H 2014
Alamdary Film

Corn Island Still - H 2014

Islands in the stream: that is what we are.

Georgian director George Ovashvili weaves a powerful life-and-death fable from simple ingredients in this almost wordless drama, which won top prize in Karlovy Vary.

KARLOVY VARY -- A master class in emotionally charged minimalism, Corn Island takes place on the far eastern fringes of contemporary Europe, but much of its fable-like texture seems rooted in a timeless hinterland of myth and folklore. A co-production between Georgia, Germany, France, Hungary and Kazakhstan, George Ovashvili’s artfully austere drama contains barely a dozen lines of dialogue, with long silences in between. Winning the top prize at Karlovy Vary film festival last week, this stark depiction of grace under pressure contains echoes of old masters like Bresson and Tarkovsky, Kaneto Shindo and Terrence Malick, with a hint of Shakespeare’s storm-tossed island parable The Tempest, too.

Ovashvili’s second feature is the latest high-caliber festival contender to emerge from Georgia, a small nation enjoying something of a cinematic renaissance thanks to critic-friendly dramas like Levan Koguashvili’s Blind Dates and In Bloom by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross. Further festival bookings seem assured, with potential for keen word-of-mouth interest among the small but discerning theatrical audience for auteur fare with a serious-minded, quasi-literary feel.

Set against a glorious backdrop of mist-woven forests and distant mountains, Corn Island returns Ovashvili to the ongoing border conflict that also inspired his feature debut, the 2009 drama The Other Bank, another festival prize-winner. In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, war broke out between Georgia and the autonomous region of Abkhazia, killing around 20,000 people and displacing more than 250,000. An uneasy ceasefire was agreed upon after the Russian-backed Abkhazi victory in 1993, but violence has flared up many times since.

This elemental story of blood-soaked borderlands takes place in the middle of the Inguri River, which forms a natural frontier between these warring Caucasian states. Every winter, river surges create temporary islands composed of nutrient-rich soil that can be exploited as growing fields over the summer months. One such island becomes the perilous home to an aging Georgian farmer (Ylias Salman) and his school-age granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili), who work together wordlessly to build a rudimentary wooden shack and plant a crop of corn.

Meanwhile, armed officers patrol the river in motor launches, and gunfire can be heard sporadically in the distance. One day a wounded Georgian soldier (Irakli Samushia) washes up onshore, triggering unspoken sexual and political friction between the farmer, his innocently flirtatious granddaughter and a passing boat full of suspicious Russian border guards. But Ovashvili manages to sustain dramatic tension without resorting to overblown melodrama or obvious plot twists. When tragedy strikes, it comes from the heavens, not from earthly lust or malice. Mother Nature trumps human nature every time.

On the technical side, the production is full of unshowy skill and subtle detail. Unable to find a suitable existing island, Ovashvili and his multinational team elected to construct two for the shoot, one of them in the middle of an artificial lake. Elemer Ragalyi’s cinematography is elegant and fluid, often filmed across water, transforming a limited single-set location into a rich and ever-changing canvas. Shot on 35mm before digital transfer, the color palette is full of warm sepia tints and golden earth tones. Despite its daunting aura of stern arthouse rigor, Corn Island turns out to be an immersive sensory pleasure with a strong emotional pay-off.

Production companies: Alamdary Film, 42film, Arizona Productions, Axman Production, Kazakhfilm

Starring: Ylias Salman, Mariam Buturishvili, Irakli Samushia

Director: George Ovashvili

Screenwriters: Nugzar Shataidze, George Ovashvili, Roelof Jan Minneboo

Producers: Nino Devdariani, Eike Goreczka, Guillaume de Seille, Karla Stojakova, Sain Gabdullin

Cinematographer: Elemer Ragalyi

Editor: Sun-Min Kim

Music: Josef Bardanashvili

Sales company: Pascale Ramonda, Paris

No rating, 100 minutes