Transcending Limitations: "Running to the Sky"

in 24th Busan International Film Festival

by Elaine Guerini

The opening scene of Running to the Sky (Jo Kuluk) gives us an idea of the struggles its child protagonist faces in an isolated mountain village in Kyrgyzstan. Twelve-year-old Jekshen competes in a race, hoping to win a rooster as a prize. Jekshen is the fastest runner in school, but fails to win when two rival boys push him and he falls over; the son of a rich man wins the prize instead.

Coming home downcast, without the rooster which would have fed his family, Jekshen begins an emotional journey of self-discovery. He will encounter many obstacles, but nothing can make him give up his dream of a better life. In Kyrgyz director Mirlan Abdykalykov’s delicate portrait of a struggling country in Central Asia, running becomes a metaphor for embracing life as it is and transcending all limitations.

This is Abdykalykov’s second feature. In 2015, he directed Heavenly Nomadic (Sutak), about a family of nomads living in the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Prior to that, Abdykalykov worked as an actor, playing the central role in The Adopted Son (Beshkempir, 1998), which was directed by his father Aktan Abdykalykov (also known as Aktan Arym Kubat).

The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Busan this year, Running to the Sky is a tribute to the human spirit. With its realistic approach and naturalistic performances, Abdykalykov presents the daily life of a country which has continued to suffer – particularly economically – since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The story is told through the eyes of Jekshen (Temirlan Asankadyrov, an actor who possesses a dramatic intensity beyond his years). With beautiful mountain scenery in the background, thanks to the work of cinematographer Talant Akynbekov, the camera follows the many setbacks in the boy’s life. His father, Saparbek (Ruslan Orozakunov), spends his days drinking instead of driving the tractor he can no longer afford. The father’s excuse for his drunkenness is that his wife abandoned him – as if she had not also abandoned her son. Jekshen suffers from the absence of his mother, who chose to live with a more successful man; he is also affected by his father’s emotional damage.

In one of the most touching scenes, the boy’s mother comes to visit him, bringing a smartphone as a gift. When she invites him to live with her in future, Jekshen says he won’t go, reasoning that he cannot leave his father since the rejection might kill him. The boy demonstrates a disconcerting maturity which is truly heartbreaking.

Lacking money, Jekshen cannot afford to compete in races, or even buy the sneakers he needs to run. His math teacher (Ilim Kalmuratov) demonstrates a total lack of sensitivity, constantly reminding Jekshen of his debt in class, in front of his friends. This encourages the other boys to bully him further.

However, as heavy as his burdens may seem, Jekshen carries them with dignity, striving to do better each time. This trait ennobles the boy, regardless of what life has in store for him. Luckily, Jekshen has the support of his gym teacher (Meerim Atantaeva), who encourages him to devote himself to running and to compete for the school. The only thing left for the boy to do is run, which he does as if his life depended on it.

Elaine Guerini
Edited by Lesley Chow