Harmony Lessons is a debut feature from the harsh terrains of Kazakhstan by young director Emir Baigazin. Thirteen year old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is a troubled but intelligent student who spends his spare time torturing cockroaches after hearing on the news about their capacity to spread disease.
Plenty of other tell-tale signs hints towards his sociopath mind however. The film begins with him unflinchingly cornering a sheep and killing it, stringing it and gutting it. Suddenly we are in his school, a bizarre health assessment is conducted on the students to determine the wheat from the chaff. He is goaded by a fellow classmate Bolat and tricked into a disgusting act and from this point on he is ostracized by everyone.
He broods and quietly performs strange experiments and antisocial activities in his room and in the outskirts of the city. The nasty methodology behind his strange acts stem from what he ironically learns in school; from energy, biology and evolution. This information is introduced in class room scenes and lectures of great men like Ghandi and Darwin. He puts all this information to fascinating twisted uses later.
While the focus is off him in the interim there is plenty happening at the school to warrant morbid interest. This includes racketeering, extortion and bullying. Bolat is the conduit between senior students and the small gang he runs. His actions, including the ostracism of Aslan are observed as if under a microscope. The biology and rationale of the viscous cycle of crime and perpetuating disharmony evident in almost every facet of the film.
It is exciting thought provoking material to chew on and Emir gives a deft enough hand to guide the viewer through the austere, clinical and inhuman people and places that subside in this petri dish.
There are potential outs for Aslan's predicament that are slowly introduced, including a new student, a faithful muslim girl and a victim of Bolat's bullying. Unfortunately they eventually join the circle and only enhance Aslan's dark path of vengeance. The film never seems to end as things spiral out of control and truly surreal aspects are introduced.
Harmony Lessons is a tough watch, it could have been tighter which would have enhanced its surreal brutality, and the absence of music stretches proceedings further. However it is extremely ambitious, packing a lot to ponder in such a constrained location.
This is a dissenting new voice from a very interesting place and after writing about it I feel it certainly requires a re-watch and deep thought to truly appreciate.
Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton on Twitter here: @Kwenton
Kwenton Bellette is extremely passionate about Asian film and the resurgence of new waves taking place in Korea, Japan and China in the last 10 years. He joined the global site Twitchfilm in 2009, is the artistic director of the Fantastic Asia Film Festival is Melbourne and currently studies a film masters degree at Melbourne University. He is very excited to raise further awareness of the what he thinks is the most exciting film industry in the world.