Writer-helmer-editor Emir Baigazin demonstrates near-perfect pitch with his first professional feature, “Harmony Lessons,” an immaculately executed study of bullying and revenge in a small town on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Coaxing intense perfs from a young non-pro cast and demonstrating a painterly eye with austere, digitally shot compositions, Baigazin has crafted a disturbing study in crime and punishment that evokes, among others, Kieslowski and Bresson, but still speaks in its own unique voice. Certain to win fest plaudits, “Harmony” could chime with arthouse auds abroad on niche circuits.
Thirteen-year-old loner protagonist Aslan (initially poker-faced Timur Aidarbekov, who plumbs greater depths in the final reels) lives with his grandmother (Bagila Kobenova) on a modest farmstead at the edge of a small, unnamed burg. A grueling opening sequence that shows Aslan catching, killing and slaughtering a sheep at first seems merely an anthropological detail demonstrating how these people live. But as the pic progresses, the scene takes on a more symbolic resonance that ties in with the film’s rich imagery concerning animals, violence and the survival of the fittest.
At what must be the most sparsely decorated high school in the northern hemisphere, Aslan, like most of his classmates, is the victim of bullying, mostly at the hands of cocky thug Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev). Bolat is himself just a low-ranking player in a larger racketeering scheme that extorts money from the youngest kids and moves it up the chain to bigger boys and young men, like identical twins Takhir and Damir (Adlet and Daulet Anarbekov). As the title might suggest, doubles and symmetrical pairs — of pencils, lizards, people, etc. — play a key role in the narrative, adding a gauzy layer of formalism to what might otherwise appear to be merely a simple, naturalistic story.
Although the emotionally detached but clearly intellectually gifted Aslan is at the center of the story, other characters support the overall structure, including Mirsayin (Mukhtar Andassov), a student recently arrived from the city who resists Bolat’s reign of terror, and class beauty Akzhan (Anelya Adilbekova), a devout Muslim who refuses to stop wearing her modesty-protecting headscarf in defiance of the school’s uniform rules. All end up playing a part in the disturbing last act, an adroitly maneuvered narrative zigzag that hinges on a never-seen act of violence. Thereafter, in a fashion that recalls Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing,” the police exhibit far greater brutality than the children themselves in their efforts to ascertain what really happened.
Elsewhere, the film’s wrenching moral economy echoes Bresson’s, and there might be intentional echoes of Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and the work of many other filmmakers. But ultimately, “Harmony Lessons” feels firmly embedded in its own aesthetic logic, a mixture of oneiric surrealism (especially in the bravura, f/x-assisted final shot) and unforced realism that gets across exactly what it might be like to live in the Kazakh sticks.
As befits Baigazin’s spare, sinuous plot, the craft contributions are crisp and uncluttered across the board, from the lack of music to Aziz Zhambakiyev’s elegantly framed Red lensing to Yuliya Levitskaya’s ascetic production design, which probably involved subtracting clutter from locations used instead of adding detail, a kind of set undressing. The film’s one major challenge in terms of international distribution is the amount of unfaked violence toward animals, including the slaughter of not just the aforementioned sheep, but also some lizards and numerous cockroaches, including one hapless cucaracha who gets strapped to a tiny homemade electric chair in a scene both mordantly funny and upsetting.