Berlin Review: Harmony Lessons

By
Joseph Walsh,

Undoubtedly the front-runner for this year’s Golden Bear at Berlin, Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons brings to mind Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) melded with Antonio Campos’ Afterschool (2008), in a tale that sees a young boy pitched against the mechanisms of brutal violence in the margins.

Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is a timid kid, living with his grandmother in rural Kazakhstan slitting sheep’s throats and hacking up the meat, before heading off to a school where he's ritually bullied on a daily basis. The school is a testosterone-fueled arena of survival of the fittest where weakness is squashed out like the bugs Aslan morbidly collects and tortures later in the tale. Sexually suggestive tableaus appear at regular intervals (the grandmother making sour cream, with it oozing across the wooden floor, is the most striking) along with images of nature at its most cruel, including a decapitated lizard’s head still mindlessly flopping around despite being bereft of life.

After a medical examination Aslan’s luck doesn’t improve, drinking a glass of water the other schoolboys have dipped their wicks in, leaving him detested by one and all. Things only go downhill from here with school head honcho Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev) shifting from playground bully to joining a low-level protection racket robbing his classmates of their pocket money, and paying it to local teenage gangsters, becoming something of a pint-sized mobster himself. All alone, Aslan starts scrubbing himself day and night, becoming obsessed with hygiene and developing ingenious electric traps for the dirty creepy crawlies that populate his rundown home. His obsession with revenge grows and he starts to put his nimble mind to work on plotting his revenge.

The Darwinian themes are stretched out to the max, proving Harmony Lessons to be something of a one trick pony, but what a trick it is. In each shot Aziz Zhambak beautifully captures the young boy's despair and anger toward the system. The violence of the film is carefully handled so that the most brutal acts take place off screen, removing any sensationalism or glorification of unnecessary violence.

Dark, and at times verging on the surreal, this mash up of Eastern European cinema meets the revenge titles of modern Japanese cinema is strong stuff, showing that Kazakhstani cinema is one every cinephile should keep their eye on.

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