Review. Interpretation. Observations. Spoilers.-
The last film I saw at CIFF 2013 was a character study called Harmony Lessons written and directed by Kazakh film-maker Emir Baigazin. The film revolves entirely about a 13-year old boy named Aslan who lives with his grandmother in a crime-ridden village in Kazakhstan. His school is shown to be run by its students. They work with each other through a certain heirarchy. And in this social code, we find Aslan to be a complete misfit.
Some kids at school trick Aslan into degrading himself unknowingly, only to laugh at him later. He is humiliated and ostracized. But the quiet and detached Aslan lets it slide, comfortably withdrawing into his own internal world. You don’t ever get to know Aslan well enough to be able to root for or empathize with him, but you are always intrigued by him.
There is no fixed narrative here. Instead, film-maker Baigazin lets us cruise through Aslan’s life observing him. He refrains from imposing his own perception of Aslan and his world, letting us absorb the film on our own terms. He doesn’t ever close in on how Aslan feels either. Initially, I thought the distant approach to be something of a problem with the film. But it only mirrors the relationship Aslan shares with the outside world. His dialogue being minimal also matches his quietly reflective nature. Baigazin develops his character in an interesting way. Aslan is shown at a certain place in a certain manner that evokes emotions that were previously associated with similar visuals in the film. This helps us connect the dots in the narrative.
Bolat, the alpha kid in school, extorts money from the kids, which, apparently, goes up the chain of command to fund people in prison. However, people cash in along the way, making a buck for themselves. This brings about discord. Bolat kicks his underlings in their faces, while his cronies stand by and watch. Baigazin shows us these acts of violence with restraint ensuring that we stick with the fare and aren’t distracted by events that don’t directly involve Aslan.
When Aslan returns home, he finds respite in torturing smaller creatures, particularly roaches. He uses his knack for physics to build an apparatus that electrocutes insects. We’re shown him intensely working on it. He’s a perfectionist, meticulous in his ways. This characteristic is also observed in his compulsive need to bathe multiple times every day. What I found interesting here was that he talks to the roaches he tortures as he plucks them apart bit by bit before finally electrocuting them. A question that sprung to my mind was whether he was he identifying with the aggressor in Bolat and channelizing him.
There’s a friendly city-bred boy, Mirsain, who finds his way into the film. He takes a liking for Aslan and sits beside him, something no boy has ventured out to do since Bolat ostracized him. The boys develop a relationship, but Mirsain finds himself in the cross hairs of Bolat. He stands up for himself but is outnumbered and predictably overpowered. Another poverty-stricken kid gets robbed off his Nike shoes and is kicked so often that he eventually needs to get his leg amputated.
When Aslan’s only two friends are getting stomped over, he chooses to avenge them by hurting a boy he already despises. His knack for physics helps him invent a gun, with which he puts Bolat away. This was a fairly cathartic event.
The cops take in Aslan and Mirsayin as suspects. Neither of them talk, which pressurizes the cops, who go as far as torturing the kids into confession (while ensuring there’s no evidence) out of fear of being deemed incompetent.
The dream sequence here is quite bizarre. He gets taken on stage and is electrocuted by his teachers. This seems to point to Aslan identifying with not just the aggressor (as seen in the beginning) but even with the victim. Upon waking up from this dream, he donates his prison food to a family of ants. He follows this humane act with a devious plan to get out of the mess he’s in- Kill Mirsayin and claim self-defence.
When time begins to run out for both of them, Aslan sharpens a spoon and cuts himself before finally killing Mirsayin. I like Baigazin’s storytelling technique here. He couldn’t suddenly build up to this event considering that he’s kept us distant from the film’s proceedings all along. So, he keeps the mood intact by slickly implying the event, with a subtle cut, instead of staging it.
The cops know that Aslan is solely behind everything that’s transpired. But, they have to wrap this up and save their own reputations, as cops. They hesitantly back up Aslan’s story. We have an unexpected comic moment here. One of the two cops weakly admits that life was better as a history teacher. But, somehow, this comic moment only added to the gravity of the situation, rather than trivializing it. Aslan is allowed back into the free world with no charges on him. It’s predictably ironic that this freedom comes at the cost of internal imprisonment.
On many occasions in the film, Mirsain tells Aslan of an amusement park that would help him “forget about everything and be happy.” But Aslan never has the urge to visit it, as there’s nothing to forget or mentally escape from. However, at the end, he visits this place because he’s burdened with guilt and the two souls (of Bolat and Mirsayin) continue to haunt him.
There’s an arresting visual that plays out here. Aslan’s in an arcade overwhelmed by a chaotic mix of sounds, not one of which can miss the ear. It brilliantly mirrors the mess that’s been made in his head. He slowly collapses, exhausted.
The film swiftly cuts to a beautiful milieu. The sun is in the background, Aslan is in the foreground and a lake just sits there quietly in between. Cutting to this visual paired with the drastic shift in foley (it’s serene now) seems to suggest a moment of clarity for Aslan. His mind went amok a minute back, but now, he seems to quietly reflect on everything that’s happened. Suddenly, we see Bolat and Mirsayin on the other side of the river bank waving
at Aslan. They go on to reassure him, “Don’t worry, you can walk on water. Come over.” We unexpectedly see a hallucinatory bull running on water.
The film ends here, leaving us with one of two conclusions. Aslan decides to cross over to make amends with the two boys for what he’s done and drowns. Or he ignores them and they continue to haunt his every waking moment henceforth. I’m leaning with the former because the imagined visual of the bull points to him taking their word, and the opportunity to redeem himself.
Why is the film titled Harmony Lessons? The film is anything but harmonious. Is this supposed to be an inside joke shared by the cast and crew? Nonetheless, Harmony Lessons is a quietly effective character study that intrigues its viewer with its voyeuristic storytelling.