For those still nursing roses (or wounded hearts) from this past Valentines’ Day, fear not: Love is still in the air — that is, if you have watched the latest Kyrgyz film, Salam, New York! A love poem to Kyrgyzstan, this film really should be added to the Valentine’s Day film repertoire for its portrayal of a relationship — the one you have with your homeland — that can make you laugh and cry at the same time, all while nestled under a warm blanket of patriotism. Forget The Notebook. Salam, New York! is about a love that will last forever.
Salam, New York! tells the story of an ambitious young man, Baatyr, who leaves his home in Kyrgyzstan for New York City in search of the American Dream. It is a familiar tale. He starts off with little English and little money in his pocket, but after hard work and perseverance, he gets the life his family could only dream of. He receives a law degree from Columbia Law School, sports skinny ties and drinks Starbucks, has the support of a loyal group of friends, and he gets The Girl (played by Kyrgyz native Aida Tulebaev, who debuts in this film after being discovered in the “2012 Miss Internet Contest of Kyrgyzstan”). When a twist of events forces Baatyr to decide whether he should go back to Kyrgyzstan, he comes to terms with the age-old question: What do you do when you get everything you want?
Local reviews of Salam, New York! have been wildly positive. Renowned film critic Gulbara Tolomusheva writes in Limon.KG, one of Kyrgyzstan’s main sources of entertainment news, that the film, “built on the exact patterns of Hollywood standards,” provides the hero that Kyrgyzstan has long been waiting for. Another Limon.KG critic, “Max” Dooletov, calls the film a “success” because of its ability to subtly inspire. He praises the film’s pretty atmospheric shots, fine casting, and convincing storyline. On an anecdotal level, several Kyrgyz locals I have talked to crow that this is one of the best Kyrgyz films they have ever seen.
Any criticisms to be had of this film are mild and unspecific. Tolomushev and Dooletov write that the acting was okay but not great; that there could have been a better ending (although what kind of better ending is not specified); and that there were some technical issues (again, not specified). But that is all. The general consensus is that our Kyrgyz director and producer, Ruslan Akun, has done well. (Ruslan Akun became a household name in Kyrgyzstan after the release of his 2011 film, Bishkek, I Love You, which has been described as marking a “new era for cinema in Kyrgyzstan.”)
While my knowledge of Kyrgyz cinema is limited to broad Soviet and post-Soviet cinematic themes, I will say that from an American perspective, Salam, New York! checks all the boxes on what makes a feel-good, inspirational, and patriotic story. I felt proud to be an American after watching this. I also felt optimistic about the human spirit to conquer all adversity. Sure, the plot is predictable as apple pie — but there’s nothing wrong with that. To many of us, eating Ramen noodles while pursuing that law degree is always a good story. Knocking on 30 doors before getting that foot in the door, that unpaid internship, is always something worth rooting for. And watching a first-generation college graduate say “Thank you” to his parents, while donning that cap and gown during the graduation ceremony, is always cause to tear up. As an American, Salam, New York! hits all the right chords.
Salam, New York!, however, is not an American film. It is distinctly Kyrgyz, spoken (partly) in Kyrgyz, produced by a Kyrgyz director, and about Kyrgyz social issues. Director Aslun has some serious questions for his fellow Kyrgyz. During an interview with Limon.KG, Aslun asks: When will Kyrgyzstan stop justifying their national weaknesses, such as tribal divisions and political preferences, as “national traits?” When will the Kyrgyz language stop being the “language of gossip and politics?” When will there be equality before the law, open competition for business, and protection of property rights? Akun does not take Kyrgyzstan’s moniker as Central Asia’s “island of democracy” lightly. He is a true patriot, proud of his country and of the potential of the Kyrgyz spirit, and insistent that Kyrgyzstan can do better.
So watch this film for an entertaining story and for an informative glimpse into modern Kyrgyz society as it struggles to reconcile its authoritarian Soviet past with its desire for a more democratic future. It probably won’t win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, due to its predictable plot and utilization of Hollywood clichés (seriously, films need to stop having a “This is my favorite view of New York” scene). But it is a solid story with all the right messages — and to a pretty hip soundtrack (Kyrgyz hip-hop! love it!). Expect a few tears, especially when Baatyr calls home for the first time since arriving in the States, or when his friends throw him a surprise party the day he gets accepted into law school. Definitely expect to leave the theater inspired to do good — whether you live in a 22-year-old democracy, or 237-year-old democracy.
About Cosmopark Theater:
For those interested in watching more films in Bishkek, the four main theaters are Ala-Too, October, Vefa, and Cosmopark. For this film I went to Cosmopark, Bishkek’s newest theater. Cosmopark is a shiny, clean, Western-style facility with spacious big theaters and comfortable seats. There are many seats in the atrium to hang out before and after the film, and even a pretty swanky café-lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows with a sprawling view of the Dordoi Bazaar. The only part of the movie experience that reminded me that I was not in the States was the Russian dubbing (and that will be the case in all of Bishkek’s theaters, not just Cosmopark.) You will not find subtitles here. So films like Salam, New York! which have Kyrgyz, Russian, and English — all of which you hear, in addition to their Russian voice-overs— can be a shocking and disconcerting cacophony of sounds, if you are not used to it.