Film Review: ‘The Wounded Angel’

The Wounded Angel Berlin Film Festival
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin delivers a considerably less compelling follow-up to his acclaimed 'Harmony Lessons.'

Four separate stories in which male adolescents go off the rails constitute “The Wounded Angel,” the sophomore outing of Kazakh writer-director Emir Baigazin. Unfortunately, it’s impaired by the fact that it is very similar to his much-prized, Berlin Silver Bear-winning debut, “Harmony Lessons” (2013), but considerably less compelling: Whereas the earlier film combined a pitch-perfect study in crime and punishment with engagingly stylized visuals, the follow-up, which the director calls the second in a trilogy, fails to catch fire emotionally and is burdened by excessive formalism. While not exactly DOA, this “Angel” will struggle to fly beyond festivals.

The action is set in the early 1990s — a time of severe economic crisis and increasing crime — in a desolate outpost of rural Kazakhstan that, in the words of the local teacher, produces nothing but criminals and lazybones. The episodes are separated by images from a symbolist painting by Hugo Simberg, called “The Wounded Angel,” which is situated in Finland’s Tampere Cathedral, and accompanied by simple titles such as “Fate,” “The Fall” and “Greed.”

The second episode focuses on Chick (Madiyar Aripbay), a lad with a beautiful singing voice, who is preparing for a competition. When an illness destroys his chances, angry Chick acts out, joining his school’s thugs in shaking down younger children for their money (a plot element that also appeared in “Harmony Lessons”)

The most surreal-looking of the stories  follows greedy loner Toad (Madiyar Nazarov) as he scavenges for scrap metal in a dingy sewer tunnel. There he meets three boys who have escaped from an orphanage. The older two carry a mentally impaired youngster on a decorated litter. As the orphaned boys sniff glue and get high, one (Timur Aidarbekov, the lead of “Lessons”) tells Toad about their unseen companion, the wounded angel. Meanwhile, Toad steals the bag of silver that they have stripped from electric cables.

The final protagonist is Aslan (Omar Adilov), a dedicated student whose ambition to become a doctor come to naught after he performs an abortion on his girlfriend, then goes mad. His parents even try an exorcism to disabuse him of his belief that a tree is growing inside him.

As in his earlier film, helmer Baigazin works with non-pro actors who give intense but impassive performances. But while “Harmony Lessons” provided some sort of psychological grounding for the protagonist’s behavior and explored the notion of survival of the fittest, “The Wounded Angel” lacks a similar mechanism that would generate a rooting interest in the characters, and feels arbitrarily tied together by the director’s interest in the themes of the Simberg painting.

Baigazin’s formalist tendencies, typified by peripatetic French lenser Yves Cape’s lengthy shots — which frame characters in windows and doors, and within devastated landscapes— don’t support the overall narrative as well as they did in the director’s more energetic debut. The visuals, while striking, also come across as alienating and self-conscious, as do production designer Sergey Kopylov’s austere whitewashed homes, where the walls contain nothing but a mirror.

During the Berlin Film Festival, Baigazin announced that the final film in this trilogy would be postponed while he prepared the first pic in a new trilogy about modern nightlife in Kazakhstan’s capital, Almaty. Sounds like a good plan, since his treatment of rural teens is producing diminishing returns.

Film Review: 'The Wounded Angel'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 16, 2016. Running time: 112 MIN. (Original title: “Ranenyy angel”)  


(Kazakhstan-France-Germany) A KazakhFilm Studios, JSC Augenschein, Capricci production, with the participation of Cinema du Monde,
 Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres, Institut Francais,
 Region des Pays de la Loire, Arte France Cinema, with the support of Visions Sud Est, with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation,
 the Hubert Bals Fund of the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam, Doha Film Institute, in cooperation with the Post Republic. (International sales: Capricci Films, Bordeaux, France.) Produced by Anna Vilgelmi, Beibit Muslimov. Co-producers, Thierry Lounas, Jonas Katzenstein, Maximiliano Leo.


Directed, written, edited by Emir Baigazin. Camera (color, HD), Yves Cape; production designer, Sergey Kopylov; costume designer, Kamilla Kurmanbekova; sound, Markus Krohn; sound designer, Benjamin Horbe.


Nurlybek Saktaganov, Madiyar Aripbay, Madiyar Nazarov, Omar Adilov, Anzara Barlykova, Timur Aidarbekov, Kanagat Taskaraev, Rasul Vilyamov.

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  1. Alex Webb says:

    Alissa, I think you’ve tapped into something crucial in your review. If the narrative is compelling enough, non-actors can carry the day, their blank expressions interpreted as part of the mystery, because as an audience you’ve already taken the bait and are hooked in, waiting for the questions to be answered, but all the great frames and beautiful lighting in the world cannot save a weak narrative and non-actors are left to look like what they are – amateurs, compelling for only the first few moments.

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