Monday, May 23, 2016

SIFF ’16: The Wounded Angel

As part of an austerity measure, electricity is promptly cut at 9:00 each evening. No, its not California today. This was Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, but the political leadership is roughly comparable. Of course, as far as four teens growing up on the hardscrabble steppe are concerned, the Nazarbayev regime might as well be on Mars. Yet, the country’s stifling lack of economic development will inevitably contribute to their grief in Emir Baigazin’s The Wounded Angel (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.

There is a sort of logical fatalism to Baigazin’s thematically related stories. That which the lads most value will be taken from them, whereas those that have nothing will lose their last shreds of humanity, all before graduating from high school. Zharas is shamed by his lay-about ex-convict father, but he will make his own poor decisions as the family’s only bread winner. Chick has an angelic voice that could carry him out of the provincial backwater, until an untimely cold (perhaps with an assist from puberty) brings him crashing down to earth. The shockingly young looking Toad is already borderline sociopathic, but an encounter with a trio of shunned glue-sniffers will push the scrap metal salvager beyond redemption.

Perhaps most tragically, Aslan could very well have earned admittance to a pre-med program. Unfortunately, when his girlfriend gets pregnant he figures he can fix the problem himself, with predictably disastrous results. Indeed, environment is truly destiny for Baigazin, who will not allow talent or virtue to rescue his ill-fated boys.

Baigazin has an eye for imagery, especially the otherworldly Mad Max-ish landscape Toad navigates in search of scrap, but he gives viewers precious little relief. Time and again, we watch youthful innocence get crushed by their bleak circumstances. It is a powerful indictment of a callous regime, but it is a grueling viewing experience that gets repetitive over time.

Still, there are a number of effective bits, such as the dramatic contrast between Chick’s ecstatic performances of “Ave Maria” and the near silence of the rest of the picture. The glue-sniffers’ inadvertent recreation of Hugo Simberg’s titular touchstone fresco is also rather eerie. Still, after a while, we just so get where Baigazin is going.

Without question, the strongest segment is Toad’s misadventure. Despite our previous conditioning, it still manages to shock. Regrettably, the other three story arcs feel more like punishment. Admirers of Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons may want to sign up for another ride, but most of the rest of festival circuit patrons will find it a rough go. We can appreciate its aesthetic purity, but it is hard to recommend The Wounded Angel when it screens this Wednesday (5/25), May 31st, and June 8th, during this year’s SIFF.