'The Gulls' ('Chaiki'): Berlin Review

CHAIKI GULLS Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

CHAIKI GULLS Still - H 2015

Deep-frozen drama looks great but never quite warms up

This rare film from the Russian republic of Kalmykia paints a chilly portrait of emotional and social tensions on the edge of the Caspian Sea

A noir-ish portrait of a dysfunctional marriage on the frosty fringes of modern Russia, The Gulls is the first film to be shot in the remote republic of Kalmykia for 25 years. Premiered at the Berlinale last week, the feature debut of young writer-director Ella Manzheeva is a small but haunting character study with strong visual appeal. A predominantly Buddhist region with its own language and folk customs, Kalmykia is a strong presence in the movie and should prove to be a novel selling point for further festivals. Commercial interest will be modest, but the established overseas audience for Russian cinema with a self-critical social message should help its prospects.

The statuesque Kalmyk fashion model Evgeniya Mandzhieva makes her acting debut as Elza, a young housewife and part-time piano teacher in the remote town of Lagan on the edge of the Caspian sea. We first see Elza striding down a wintry highway, fleeing a loveless marriage with her brutish husband Dzhiga (Sergei Adianov), but she gets cold feet and returns. Back home, her life is a cycle of tight-lipped drudgery and deep-frozen tension, with a backdrop of racist resentment between different ethnic groups, and a hostile mother-in-law (Liubov Ubushieva) hovering in the wings.

Meanwhile, Dzhiga and his petty criminal friends are planning an illegal fishing trip, in defiance of local quota laws. But their voyage is a major gamble, partly because the police have already squeezed the details from an informer, but also because a severe cold weather front is approaching that could prove fatal for the entire crew. When the boat does not return, shock waves ripple around the town. Elza is churned up by mixed emotions, especially because she has just learned she is newly pregnant.

Mandzhieva is a little too impassive to carry the full emotional weight of her lead role, just as the overall drama feels sketchy and undernourished. However, The Gulls is probably best understood on the basis that the main character is not Elza but Kalmykia itself, a society where smartphones and SUVs co-exist with fortune tellers and magical superstitions - indeed, local folklore has it that the gulls of the title are the souls of dead fisherman.

Manzheeva and her cinematographer husband Alexander Kuznetsov flesh out a skeletal narrative with gorgeous gliding shots of the region's misty waterways and icy ocean vistas. The framing is crisp and formally rigorous throughout, from brooding wide shots of crepuscular landscapes to a sumptuous screen-filling close-up of Elza's hair lit by the flash of New Year fireworks. Elegance and artistry.

Anton Silayev's minimal, discordant score is also a potent part of the emotional subtext. More sound design than music, it recalls Eduard Artemyev's work for Andrei Tarkovsky. As human drama, The Gulls feels slender and inconclusive. But as a collection of haunting sensations, it points to a promising future for Manzheeva.

Production company: Telesto Film Company
Cast: Evgeniya Mandzhieva, Sergei Adianov, Liubov Ubushieva, Evgeniy Sangadzhiev
Director, screenwriter: Ella Manzheeva
Producers: Elena Glikman, YaroslavZhivov
Cinematographer: Alexander Kuznetsov
Editor: Sergey Ivanov
Music: Anton Silayev
Sales company: Antipode Sales and Distribution, Moscow

Unrated, 87 minutes