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LFF 2013: 'Harmony Lessons' review

★★★★☆
A beautiful yet also vehemently hostile Darwinian drama set within the confines of a rural Kazakh school, Emire Baigazin's Harmony Lessons (2013) is an austere and haunting tale of childhood hierarchy and the psychological suffocation of a world governed by violence. We're first introduced to 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) as he's seen merrily chasing a sheep through the snowy yard of his grandmother's countryside abode. It's a wonderful scene full of tenderness that suddenly takes a dramatic turn when Aslan, without even flinching, captures the ewe, hog-ties its legs and then proceeds to slit its throat.

Skinning the animal before methodically removing its organs and meat, it's clear that violence is an integral part of life in this quaint, bucolic region. At school, Aslan isn't quite so empowered, and after being humiliated during a medical examination, he finds himself ostracised by his classmates. The school represents its own microcosm of society, with Aslan's main tormentor, Bolat (Alsna Anarbayev), the leader of an extortion ring that has seized control of the school's classrooms. Plagued by self-doubt and a compulsion towards cleanliness, Aslan soon finds himself forced into a corner with only one conceivable way out of this tyrannical regime of brutality.

Throughout Harmony Lessons, Baigazin never attempts to convey the inner workings of his young protagonist's mind, instead viewing him clinically with a morbid sense of fascination - looking straight into his eyes, yet getting nothing in return other than the vacuous stare of an unpredictable animal. This essence of natural purity contained within the vessel of a young man unwilling to conform is enhanced by Baigzin's decision to use amateur actors (Aidarbekov for example was found in an orphanage), distilling a literal sense of innocence being manipulated. Each character plays their role within the hierarchy of this insular world, however Aslan remains an enigma - the hero, the victim and the antagonist all rolled into one.

Utilising symmetry to express the claustrophobic atmosphere of this stiflingly diminutive society, Harmony Lessons is meticulously framed, enclosing the action within these metaphysical walls of invisible oppressions. Each shot seemingly contains some underlying symbolism - be it the clinical torture of cockroaches or the origami flowers created out of boredom. Combine this heavily emblematic approach with the affective use of bright, sterile lighting and bleached composition and you have a film that's both aesthetically hypnotic, yet tainted by a repugnant cocktail of violence, despair and malevolence. Thematically imbuing the visuals of European arthouse with the cold, detached and unflinching approach to violence of Japanese cinema, Harmony Lessons is a truly unique amalgamation.

Whilst transparent in its overriding message - that our society is one evolved by the ingrained theorem of survival of the fittest - Harmony Lessons' gratuitous use of torture and implied slaughter hides an even scarier message behind its veneer of unrelenting brutalisation, articulated best by Aslan's grandmother. When asked "Can a man live without meat?", her solemn and dispiritedly resigned reply - "Maybe in heaven" - imparts an unforgettable sensation of gut-wrenching hopelessness.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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