'Running to the Sky' ('Jo Kuluk'): Film Review | Busan 2019

Running to the Sky Still 1 - Busan International Film Festival Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
Spare and simple coming-of-age drama.

'Heavenly Nomadic' director Mirlan Abdykalykov’s sophomore effort is another elegant slice of Kyrgyz life.

A dispassionate slice-of-life with a little coming-of-age thrown in for good measure, Running to the Sky is the latest entry in the burgeoning Central Asian wave, and the second film by director Mirlan Abdykalykov, whose father Aktan Arym Kubat (or Aktan Abdykalykov) is perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s best-known filmmaker (The Chimp, The Adopted Son). Returning with another focused exploration of a specific people and place in the same vein as his Heavenly Nomadic, the filmmaker offers a movie that is just as visually epic and emotionally rich as his debut.

Running to the Sky should garner the same attention Abdykalykov received the first time around, and after its New Currents premiere at Busan and a strong festival run, the same niche and art house distributors that responded in 2015 should come knocking.

In rural Kyrgyzstan, isolated 12-year-old Jekshen (the expressive and engaging Temirlan Asankadyrov) lives alone with his alcoholic father, Saparbek (Raslan Orozakunov), scrounging by at school without a uniform, dodging bullies and making excuses for not paying his fees to his math teacher (Ilimbek Kalmuratov). Saparbek spends most of his time drunk, pining over the wife that dumped him for a more successful man in the city or arguing with the owner of the truck he leases for work, Smatai (Ulan Omuraliev) — to whom he owes rent.

When Jekshen’s gym teacher (Meerim Atantaeva) discovers his natural talent for running, she enters him in a school competition. When he gets a taste of success (he wins a prized rooster) and, more crucially, belonging, he looks for other chances to keep racing, and it puts him on a new path in his young life.

Running to the Sky has no grand statements to make, and no hot-button issues to deal with, but it does paint a delicate and layered portrait of everyday life for one young boy as he bears more weight than he should for his age. When Jekshen’s mother reappears one afternoon, lurking around the school waiting to whisk him away, Jekshen tells her he just can’t up and abandon his father, no matter how ineffectual a parent the man is. The fact that most of Jekshen’s “friends” and the only people to give him any advice are his father’s creditors and former co-workers says it all. The film is vivid in its portrayal of a boy who has to grow up way too fast. As miserable as that may sound, it’s not bleak or hopeless, and Abdykalykov never condescends to or feels sorry for his characters. Jekshen may be running on the spot but at least he’s not stagnating internally.

As with other filmmakers from the region, cinematographer Talant Akynbekov (who shot Abdykalykov's first feature) has plenty of natural material to work with in the dry, dusty landscapes whose rugged bleakness and widescreen images suggest just how far Jekshen has to go tell half the story. The other half is told by young Asankadyrov, who magically manages to be simultaneously childlike and immature and wise beyond his years. Abdykalykov never seems to be pulling a performance from his star, and neither does Asankadyrov tip into overly mannered, youthful demonstrations of his various dilemmas. His performance is one that effortlessly draws viewers in and makes you care about a spilled water can and the potential to win a mule. Talk about old souls.

Production company: Oy Art Film

Cast: Temirlan Asankadyrov, Ruslan Orozakunov, Meerim Atantaeva, Ilimbek Kalmuratov, Ulan Omuraliev, Kubanychebek Beishebaev, Jibek Baktybekova, Jenish Kargeldiev, Dishat Mambetaliev

Director: Mirlan Abdykalykov

Screenwriter: Ernest Abdyjaparov, Mirlan Abdykalykov

Producer: Altynai Koichumanova

Executive producer: Alima Koichuma nova

Director of photography: Talant Akynbekov

Production designer: Adis Seitaliev

Costume designer: Mira Kerimalieva

Editor: Evgeniy Krokhmalenko

Music: Murzali Jeenbaev

Casting: Nurbek Isabekov

World sales: Pluto Film

Venue: Busan International Film Festival

In Kyrgyz, Russian

No rating, 85 minutes