Issue 73 (2021)

Eduard Bordukov: On the Edge (Na ostrie, 2019)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2021

na ostrieOn the Edge is the second major release by Eduard Bordukov after his debut feature film The Pitch (Korobka, 2016). Whereas The Pitch concerned amateur male football/soccer players and the dream of maybe one day playing professional, On the Edge features professional women at the pinnacle of their sport of saber fencing. Bordukov teams again with actress Stasia Miloslavskaia, only now she has moved up from the role of the girlfriend of the boy with big dreams to being the dreamer herself—with ambitions to be the best in the world.  

The film begins at the semi-finals of the Russian Fencing Cup. Kira Egorova (Miloslavskaia), a former junior championship player, has burst onto the scene and lands in the championship match against Aleksandra Pokrovskaia (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the national team leader who has already won almost every major title except Olympic gold. Kira’s mask is decorated with a red cross suggestive of Russian Orthodoxy, while Sasha’s mask has the tricolor of the Russian flag. They may be competitors, but together they represent God and Country! Sasha manages to secure her seventh national title, but not without controversy and not without being unsettled by Kira.  

The film establishes the two protagonists as not just rivals, but opposites. Kira is the young 19-year-old upstart versus the ‘old master’ Sasha at the ripe age of 34. Kira is a quick-tempered brunette, the kind of girl who does not look up from her phone while crossing the street and then yells at a honking driver to watch where he is going. Sasha is an icy cool blonde who takes notes on her competition and studies video footage of her matches. Kira fences left-handed, and Sasha fences right-handed. Kira is more impulsive and explosive, while Sasha is more studied and cerebral. Kira is a loner who insists on her independence, while Sasha talks about their team as a family. Kira has an unstable home life and shares a small cramped flat with a roommate, while Sasha lives in a luxury condominium and drives a Mercedes—a prize for winning the silver medal at the previous Olympics (and which Kira retorts is what you get for losing).

on the edgeEarly scenes underscore these oppositions through color and sound. Kira at home is shown dressed in black and bathed in bold red lighting. Sasha at home is dressed all in white in softer bluish-grey lighting. Kira stares at her mask—frustrated and sore at losing—and the camera quickly rushes toward that mask and immediately there is a cut to Sasha getting a paper cut from her notebook right where she was jotting down information on Kira. Kira listens to rap music, and Sasha is married to a classical musician. Kira wears red to an official reception, while Sasha wears a dark teal.

The coach of the national team (Sergei Puskepalis) brings Kira into their training facility and seems to favor her. He tells Sasha that she is out of shape and has lost her predator instinct. He favorably calls Kira a “wild and cheeky monkey” and approves of her “naughtiness.” Kira wins a title in Paris and begins receiving extensive press coverage. She is labeled the “Russian Panther” and gets treated to glamorous photo shoots—all while Sasha trains in frustration as her status and entitlement are increasingly in question.

As one might expect, or at least hope, this rivalry becomes more complicated. It comes to a head at the Moscow Grand Prix, the qualifying match for the Olympics. One inadvertently—possibly even intentionally—causes the other to be injured, but then she steps up to help and protect the other when the injury threatens her place on the Olympic team. And then there is an assault, which seems gratuitous and shown to demonstrate how these women can be ferocious in swordplay off the fencing piste in real life, but the (soon-forgotten) trauma further bonds our protagonists and cements their commitment to each other. 

on the edgeAn announcer in the film informs us that saber is the second-fastest sport—that “only a bullet is faster”—which presents a challenge for cinematic depiction. We are definitely not seeing the extended choreographed swordplay of musketeers and swashbucklers. Instead, action begins and ends in just a couple seconds at most, and often the movements are so subtle that we must rely on the electric conductivity of the athletes’ suits to confirm who landed a touch first. The film uses slow motion, close-ups, and computer-generated visualizations of electrical current to portray and animate these action sequences.

One telling curiosity about On the Edge is that it is eventually revealed to take place in 2016, and the Olympics they are competing to get into are the Rio de Janeiro games. The film suddenly does not seem entirely fictional, particularly if one remembers (or Googles) the results of those Olympics. Our fictional character Kira Egorova seems rather similar to the actual Olympian Yana Egorian, also brunette and just 22 when she competed in Rio. The parallels require a bit more of a stretch with our character Sasha Prokhovskaia, who is considerably more blonde than the Olympian Sofya Velikaya, but who in fact won Silver at the London Olympics in 2012 and competed in Rio at the age of 27. And Egorian and Velikaya did indeed end up meeting for the gold-medal match, and that match was also decided 15-14.

on the edgeIt is perhaps worth noting that Egorian was born in Yerevan, Armenia and Velikaya was born in what is now Almaty, Kazakhstan. Both indeed play for Russia, but the film does not address or even hint at questions of ethnicity, which Bordukov seemed more sensitive to in The Pitch (Kira reveals she comes from Gryazovets, Vologda Oblast). It is definitely worth noting that neither character is shown playing against a Ukrainian at the Olympics, when it was a Ukrainian who actually won Bronze that year. The film shows a player from France competing in the semi-finals, which is what happened in Rio, but a player from South Korea replaces the Ukrainian semi-finalist in the film, and the film instead awards Bronze to the French athlete. And it is France in the film that competes against Russia in the team final for Gold, when it was in fact Ukraine that played against Russia for team Gold in Rio.

on the edgeI bring up these issues because On the Edge does seem to take a turn toward historical specificity. At the end of the film, we get documentary footage of the victorious Russian belles sabreuses, and not just those who compete with the saber: we see the winning hits and triumphs of Sofya Velikaya, Yana Egorian, and Inna Deriglazova (on foil)—all 2016 Olympic Gold medalists—and Sofia Pozdniakova (two-time world champion on saber in 2018 and 2019)—all exclaiming in victory and then kissing their medals. In an interview, Miloslavskaia confesses her admiration for Egorian and recounts communicating with her on Instagram and even meeting with her, but she says nothing about trying to model her mannerisms or the like (Al’perina 2020). The film does not seem to be biographical, even though it liberally adopts biographic details. What matters most, or at least what is said to matter most, is that the Olympic champion was moved to tears by the film. The film strives for mythmaking and hagiography. For those who can still recall the doping scandals surrounding so many players on the Russian Olympic team in 2016, this film redirects our attention to legitimate, unbesmirched national heroes and suggests a legacy in the making—one presumably continuing this year.

On the Edge served as the closing film of the 2020 Moscow International Film Festival. Its original domestic release date in March 2020 seemed timed to appear in advance of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but the Covid epidemic caused its release to be pushed back more than half a year. The film opened in Russia on over 1,500 screens in late November 2020, far ahead of the postponed Summer Games. It managed to capture the number two spot at the box office over its first two weeks, both times placing second to the Viktor Shamirov comedy Expressly Kakha (Neposredstvenno Kakha, 2020).

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

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Works Cited

Al’perina, Susanna. 2020. “Stasia Miloslavskaia rasskazala o svoei roli v fil’me Na ostrie.”Rossiiskaia Gazeta, 26 November.

On the Edge (Na ostrie), Russian Federation, 2019
Color, 114 min.
Director: Eduard Bordukov
Script: Eduard Bordukov, Aleksandr Egorov, Mikhail Kakuberi, Anton Sheenson, Anna Sobolevskaia, Igor’ Gordashnik
Director of Photography: Mikhail Milashin
Sound: Aleksandr Fedenev
Editor: Aleksandr Koshelev
Music: Oleg Belov, Dmitrii Emel’ianov
Production Design: Denis Isaev
Costume Design: Nadine Dey
Cast: Svetlana Khodchenkova, Stasia Miloslavskaia, Sergei Puskepalis, Aleksei Barabash, Kirill Degtiar’, Evgenii Sytyi, Sof’ia Ernst, Khil’da Karmen, Kristina Kucherenko
Producers: Irina Medvedeva, Anna Gudkova, Elena Glikman, Mikhail Degtiar’
Production: Central Partnership, Telesto

Eduard Bordukov: On the Edge (Na ostrie, 2019)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2021

Updated: 2021