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.