The story of an old man and his granddaughter, who live on a fertile estuary created every spring by the Inguri river (which forms the boundary between Georgia and Abkhazia). Their peaceful lives are disturbed by border patrols from both sides, which creates tensions as they're passing by.

Slow and steady wins this race

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Mid-film monologuers and prolific popcorn munchers need not apply. As minimalistic as its title, Corn Island is a film that requires attention and permits few distractions from the activity on the screen. The number of words in the prologue titles probably exceed the number of words spoken throughout the film’s 100 minute duration. However, the beautiful images - much of the time unsullied by anything as manipulative as music - are enough to rivet the eye and lead the viewer slowly from scene to scene. Slow is the key concept. Like an ocean liner doing a U-turn, for a long time it looks like nothing is really happening on Corn Island, but if you’re willing, it becomes apparent that the film exists to gently escort audiences on a hypnotic, and probably allegorical, journey.

So what does happen? As the opening titles explain, after each winter the water levels of Georgia’s Enguri River surge from melted snowfalls and in doing so, the forces of the current forge small islands in its midst, which the local people adopt for agricultural purposes as the soil is so rich. Now, whether that be true or false, the title cards have the air of authenticity, and as a weather-beaten, grey haired, man (Ilya Salman) arrives on a fish-shaped island smaller than your average suburban block and begins running his fingers through the soil the film feels like a anthropological study. This feeling is reinforced as the old man starts to create a settlement. As he ferries building supplies from the shore, it appears we’re going to watch the old man lay every stump and hammer every nail. The water flows by and the sun rises high in the blue sky, but when the man brings a girl on the cusp of womanhood (Mariam Buturishvili) to the island, the atmosphere of a fable begins to settle over the images. Not bothering to clarify their relationship until much later in the film, the young woman helps the old man in his agricultural venture and so the kernels of corn – as well as seeds of drama - are sewn.

From time to time, small boats carrying soldiers cruise by. Some speak Georgian. Another batch speak Abkhaz the language of a breakaway province and the mother tongue of the old man and the girl (her tonal difference suggests some kind of speech impediment, but as my Abkhaz is a little rusty, I can’t say for sure). Another batch of soldiers speak Russian. Occasionally there are gunshots. But it doesn’t take much to conclude that the film’s real conflict will involve the girl with the budding breasts and at least one of the soldiers whose heads she so effortlessly turns – much to the old man’s displeasure.

Though the soldier’s boats are motorised, the man and the Rapunzel-like girl over whom the man keeps increasingly vigilant watch, seem to operate in a different era. There is a rich sense of a never-ending, timeless passion play being re-enacted for yet another season. This feeling increases as the film reaches its climax with glacial inevitability.

As indicated, this is not a film for the impatient, but Corn Island does exude its own compelling energy. The film has some flaws. The film’s metaphors are occasionally opaque and obtuse (what is the small amber item resembling a plastic pipe stem that the old man finds and what does it represent?), but the symbolism is not executed in a defiant manner like a taunting Peter Greenaway or an elusive David Lynch in a “look ma no hands” cleverness. Such a lack of transparency will be maddening for some, but Corn Island feels right and the film persuades because it is clear that writer/director George Ovashvili has a coherent vision and that the film is a successful representation of that vision. This is art–house cinema that manages to achieve its aims through sincerity rather than pretension and requests that its quality be taken on faith. If you are willing to believe in it, Corn Island is an exhilarating experience. And the next time writer/director Ovashvili plumbs the depths of his unconscious (with or without the help of co-writers Roelof Jan Minneboo and Nugzar Shataidze) to create another film, I for one, will be lining up to see whether he can match this simple, but fascinating enchantment.

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1 hour 40 min
In Cinemas 01 January 1970,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20