Issue 53 (2016)

Emir Baigazin: The Wounded Angel (Ranennyi angel, Kazakhstan, 2016)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2016

Emir Baigazin’s debut Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii, 2013) gained the director and his country unprecedented furore when it screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival and won a Silver Bear for Best Cinematography for the cameraman Aziz Zhambakiev.

wounded angelSecond films are never easy, especially when they follow a loud first film. This one is no exception. It is well made, but somewhat too close to the director’s debut. Set in a steppe village, Baigazin uses a similar location to that of Harmony Lessons. The plot also focuses on teenage boys and issues of growing up, as they grapple both with the social context of a country struggling with its newly gained independence and their own adolescence; Baigazin even cast some of the same actors. But while Harmony Lessons offered a coherent plot line, focusing on Aslan’s withdrawal from his peers and his environment as he got gradually pulled into in a spiral of violence that extended from the everyday to the wider, social and political level, The Wounded Angel is fragmented, presenting a series of case studies of teenagers in existential crises.

The scenes of village life are set in the 1990s, a time when the Kazakh economy was rebuilding following the collapse of the Soviet Union; power cuts were frequent, crime rampant. On the one hand, this is the time of Baigazin’s own youth; but if it were not for these power cuts, one may have wondered to what extent the situation has changed for today’s youth—not so much in terms of historical changes, but in terms of the existential issues that face a boy on the way to adulthood. On the other hand, the temporal setting in the past allows Baigazin a more open portrayal of crime, corruption, depravation than if he had set the film in the present (one may recall the criticism leveled at Harmony Lessons in its native Kazakhstan and the delays with the film’s release there).

wounded angelThe film’s first episode explores the complicated relationship of Zharas with his father, who has returned home from a term in prison. Zharas is quite independent, working at a mill to support his mother. Not unlike Aslan in Harmony Lessons he seems to be a “good boy,” doing the right things: help his mother, show obedience to the elders (despite some murmured protest at sleeping on the floor to vacate his bed for his father), and protect from theft some sacks of milled flour at work. But this only seems to be the case: in reality Zharas has stolen the flour and resold it, at least this is what the police allege. So behind a surface of “normality”, another teenage boy falls into the trap of crime and theft: Zharas follows the path of his father and ends up in prison. In the meantime, the father has difficulties re-integrating into society and only finds a job in another town, leaving Zharas’s mother alone in the village.

wounded angelZharas resembles Aslan in other ways, too: where Aslan dissects cockroaches, Zharas collects leaves and arranges them in a herbarium. Both engage in an activity of freezing time, of holding the moment through the preservation of nature objects. Frozen objects and still images represent a moment of stagnation: Zharas looks at himself in the mirror to fixate himself as if that mirror image could hold up his development. But mirrors often open vistas into other spaces and onto other characters, for example when Zharas looks into the father’s room through its reflection in the mirror. Similarly, windows serve as frames that open views onto the steppe, for example when Zharas takes a smoke in a half-built and abandoned house: that window has no glass. The Belgian cinematographer Yves Cape thus manages to offer views of the open steppe through restrictive devices, suggesting a limitation of perspective (and, by extension, future). And where Aslan is raised by the grandmother and has no male model, Zharas has been cared for by his mother; now that the father is back, the recluse teenager who is obsessed with the herbarium and plays with Rubrick’s cube, is introduced to the world of men: the father teaches him how to do “manly” things, how to fight and how to punch others.

This chapter closes with the heading “Fate”. Such chapter headings appear at the end of chapters and appear against a backdrop of fragments from Hugo Simberg’s frescoes for Tampere Cathedral, which also importantly holds a painting of “The Wounded Angel” that lends this film its title.

wounded angelThe following chapter focuses on Balapan, nicknamed Chick, who sings the Ave Maria with a beautiful clear voice. He does not beat up the other boys, hence his nickname. Then suddenly he looses his voice following a cold: angry, he resorts to violence easily and kills his beloved pet chicken; he is also now capable of beating up another boy. The theme that connects the stories is that of integration through doing boys’ things: beating up the other boys, which is what the father teaches Zharas, and what Chick does when angry that he cannot follow the path that fate seemed to have prepared for him. The chapter is titled “The Fall” and suggests another fall from paradise, from innocence, into the world of violence and crime.

The following chapter centers on “Toad” (Zhaba), a boy who collects scrap metal and turns it in for money. He wades through dumps and sewers, and he knows some caves. He keeps the money he earns in jars; at home, he does not share any of the money with his family. He has a recurrent dream: he and his mother are in the steppe, when threatened by wolves, she throws the child onto roof of the bus stop; a bird approaches and the mother is ripped apart by wolves. Metaphorically, another teenager is adopted raised by nature as the family is destroyed through external violence. On one of his collections Toad meets three glue-sniffers; they are from a nearby orphanage—another indicator of the collapse of the family unit. When they sniff glue, and one of the boys (who played Aslan in Harmony Lessons) excitedly talks about the way in which a wounded angel is rescued. Toad believes neither in angels nor in the mother’s tale; he locks the boys in the cave and takes the silver that they have collected. Toad exploits those weaker than him, and becomes a thief and a murderer. Back at home, he has a bath and gets a birthday cake, but he hesitates to blow out the candles: this boy has no wishes, no hopes, and no dreams. This chapter closes with the title “Greed”.

The final chapter focuses on a boy called Aslan, who wants to get into medical school. He is worried about his entrance exams and his parents’ expectations increase the pressure on the only son. Aslan has a girlfriend, Roza, who is pregnant. Aslan tells her to have an abortion. From that moment onward, his mental health deteriorates: as he “kills” his own child, he imagines a tree growing inside his body. Neither medical nor spiritual expertise can help him. This chapter closes with the title “Sin”.

The epilogue shows the boys quietly assembled in the village hall, listening to Chick singing—obviously a dream sequence. A voiceover tells us that Zharas is in prison; Toad has hanged himself; Chick has become a singer; and Aslan is taken to the city for a cure from his condition.

wounded angelWhilst painting a bleak picture of Kazakh youth in the 1990s, offering a future only to the singer/the artist—and by extension Baigazin himself?—the film forms part of the chernukha style of the 1990s, the period in which the film is set. The metaphorical layer that works so well in Harmony Lessons is fragmented here, as is the overall narrative: the dried plants, the child’s voice, the scrap metal (silver and copper) may well be read in terms of metaphors, but there are too many of them to create a meaningful layer for interpretation. Instead, the plot and the imagery resemble sketches and exercises that show youth problems. Clearly this is one of the strong themes for Baigazin, but ultimately the film tells us little more than how difficult it was to grow up in a Kazakh village in the 1990s. And indeed, how much do the problems of growing up in Kazakhstan differ from the problems of maturation encountered by teenagers in other cultures, at other times?

As an award winner and previous recipient of World Cinema Fund support, Baigazin’s film should have screened in one of Berlin’s official programs. Yet unlike Harmony Lessons, this film did not make it to the competition and was instead included in the Panorama program. Clearly, Wounded Angel is much weaker than Baigazin’s debut and repeats stylistic and thematic approaches of the earlier film. Hopefully, Baigazin will be able to move into new pastures with his next film.

Birgit Beumers
Aberytswyth University

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Works Cited

Filimonova, Tatiana (2014). “Emir Baigazin: Harmony Lessons/Uroki garmonii”, KinoKultura 45.

The Wounded Angel. Kazakhstan/Germany/France 2016
Color, DCP, 113 min.
Director and Scriptwriter: Emir Baigazin
DoP Yves Cape
Editing: Emir Baigazin
Sound Design  Benjamin Hörbe
Sound Markus Krohn
Production Design  Sergei Kopylov
Costume Design Kamilla Kurmanbekova
Executive Producer Beibit Muslimov
Producers Anna Vilgelmi, Beibit Muslimov
Co-Production Augenschein Filmproduktion, Köln; Capricci Productions, Nantes; Kazakhfilm
Cast: Nurlybek Saktaganov (Zharas); Madiyar Aripbay (Balapan/Chick); Madiyar Nazarov (Zhaba/Toad); Omar Adilov (Aslan); Anzara Barlykova (Roza); Timur Aidarbekov (Glue-sniffer); Kanagat Taskaraev (Glue-sniffer); Rasul Vilyamov (Glue-sniffer)

Emir Baigazin: The Wounded Angel (Ranennyi angel, Kazakhstan, 2016)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2016