There are three clear-cut dream sequences in “Harmony Lessons.” However, when our lead character Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) snaps out of his reverie, his reality is still strange enough for this film to feel as if it is being beamed down from some distant planet.
It isn't a distant planet, but it is the seldom represented rural landscape of Kazakhstan, alternating between hot sands and endless snow. Once you make your way past the veneer of weirdness you'll find that “Harmony Lessons” can boil down to the fairly traditional plot of an intelligent though timid boy confronting a brutal bully with a violent conclusion. It is to writer director Emir Baigazin's credit that it'll take you some time to realize this is the direction in which the film is headed – and along the way you will be wowed by the artful framing of the situational peculiarities.
“Harmony Lessons” opens with young Aslan chasing a sheep. It is a long static shot with both boy and animal popping in and out of the frame. What at first seems playful quickly turns gross. The sheep is killed, skinned and disemboweled the old fashioned way, with Aslan's weather-beaten grandmother's only comment concerning his omission of mumbling a prayer.
Most of Aslan's home life is presented in squared-off images. Aslan and his grandmother sit without speaking in a blank living room unadorned with anything but cracks in the wall as a machine of some sort turns snow into water. (Or, at least I think that's what it's doing.) In his bedroom Aslan has set up an elaborate electrical torture chamber for captured cockroaches, and he stands before a mirror practicing a reflex test given to him by a physician.
Our first glimpse of Aslan integrated into society is at a school infirmary's checkup. There all the boys are lined up and swatted for having an erection in the presence of a voluptuous nurse. Aslan, the outsider, is duped into drinking a glass of water that the other boys have used to wash their genitals, the first in a number of cruel tricks going on at the school.
It isn't just noogies in Kazakhstan. The schools of “Harmony Lessons” are ruled by a byzantine extortion ring, in which younger kids are forced to offer up money and gifts to “brothers in prison.” The leaders are actually a pair of Robert Pattinson-by-way-of-the-Steppes twins who spend most of their time smiling in ominous ways.
I never could quite get a handle on just how this operation was working, and what sort of “protection” they were offering, but perhaps this level of confusion aids in their manipulation. That and fear, as there is no lack of beat downs, or instances of vomiting from nervous underclassmen.
This violence leaves the schoolroom and enters a police station once one of the main enforcers ends up dead. Aslan and a new, older boy (who tells tales of a magical video arcade where all of life's problems evaporate into the thrum of air hockey and “Time Crisis”) are brought in for a style of questioning taken straight from the Abu Ghraib playbook.
Baigazin leaves a lot of the crime thriller aspects of the film ambiguous, focusing on the cold and strange rituals used at “getting to the truth.” Rarely are scenes of underage boys getting tortured rendered so beautifully.
“Harmony Lessons” is an odd duck and a bit of a hard sit. Parts of it are glacially paced, parts of it are just gross. For those who look for films where each shot comes loaded with a clearly defined aesthetic, this is a movie for you. If you are looking for a more straightforward narrative in which to get all raged-up about school bullying, stick with The Weinstein Company's documentary.
SCORE: 8.5 / 10