Zulfiqor Musakov: Boys in the Sky 2 (Mal'chiki v nebe 2/ Osmondagi bolalar 2) , 2003
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2006
Entering a World of Future Success
Boys in the Sky 2 is the sequel to Zulfiqor Musakov’s 2002 comedy of the same name; both films have enjoyed enormous success in Uzbekistan, filling Tashkent theaters for months on end.  At the sequel’s premiere, four times the number of allocated viewers turned up; seats, doors, and windows were broken. The director feared that the floor would collapse under the weight of unexpected bodies. He, as his young actors, cannot now walk freely around Tashkent, hounded by young people who have seen this movie almost ten times and know the screenplay verbatim. Uzbek films, in fact, today account for 90% of domestic distribution (though this is partly due to the slower translation of American films into minor languages). 
Fiscal accomplishment on this scale, not surprisingly, is the result of a straightforward and simple plot. Four Tashkent boys wrestle with the difficulties of school, family, and the opposite sex, in particular a new arrival in their class, Lola. The boys already have their own crosses to bear, thrust upon them by their fathers, who range from the professionally or sexually frustrated to the downright booze-sodden. Lola’s beauty and disarming confidence further complicate the boys’ awkward efforts at self-definition, especially when she foils an after-school ambush with a few well-placed blows to their testicles.
Rumors abound that Lola is soon destined to leave Uzbekistan for London, but not before the male quartet has fallen head over heels for her worldly manner. She does eventually emigrate with her parents, and this distance is maintained in the sequel; Lola is now a newly-wed young woman, while the boys have begun to enter the world of their fathers, as trainee bankers, medical students, drafted soldiers, or fledgling professional athletes. Comedy here is maintained through the same combination of slapstick and generational disparities; Western viewers will recognize many staples from the coming-of-age genre. In the second film, for example, a high-end Mercedes is almost totaled by a wayward son, redoing the same accident with a Ferrari 250GT from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (dir. John Hughes, 1986). The American publication Variety, in fact, went as far as calling this pre-pubescent humor a “sort of Uzbek Pie, but chaster than its US template.”  The journal Kinoforum picked up on this reference, extending it to the hit youth comedy of 2002, Denis Evstigneev’s Let’s Make Love (Zaimemsia liubov'iu). Other Russian critics discerned a similarly international appeal, albeit with greater condescension: “The film creates a recognizable image of average people in Central Asia—of life today in the middle of nowhere.” 
The potential universality of the movie was—on happier terms—defined further by Musakov: “It’s a poetic and lyrical film about the love of four boys for one girl. It’s all about their first [experience of] betrayal, about their friendship.”  Viktor Erofeev, heading the "Kinoshok" festival jury of 2003, saw another commonality (somewhat oddly) in the “happy” truth that Uzbek kids “like Coca-Cola, too.” Reports in the Uzbek press record several requests to the director that he even consider turning these two films into a (much longer) TV series, since—at long last—national cinema is managing “without shoot-outs, blood, and cruelty.”  It is offering what everybody wants, no matter where they live.
Musakov’s sense of comedic drama indeed comes less from quintessentially American violence than the emotional bruising of tween-age maturation. He frequently shoots from behind the film’s various authority figures, recording the tragicomic damage done to youngsters; he also tends to position events of genuine anguish or worry in adjoining rooms, seen through a doorway or window. We, along with boys “everywhere,” are rarely afforded a full, objective view of how or why adult events happen.
This deliberately constricted focus is extended to outdoor scenes. One of the peculiarities of Boys in the Sky is its overriding air of peace and quiet—the extent to which it avoids the noise of others. In most of the street scenes there is little evidence of city crowds or traffic. Small groups of clumsy interaction are placed against sun-bleached walls or empty thoroughfares. Correspondingly, the most enduring metaphor across both films is that of an empty tram—a tiny social bubble that drifts across town with no more than one or two adolescent passengers.
The use of incidental music is likewise minimal, despite brief snippets from The Beatles, Sting, and Michael Jackson; Musakov floats his four boys, to borrow our Russian complaint from above, in the middle of nowhere. This is not immediately apparent, especially given the general clowning around and physical humor of the first film. When the sequel, however, continues to keep the boys at arm’s length from Tashkent’s hubbub, Musakov’s simplicity appears more purposeful. The structural plainness that won over so many Uzbek families starts looking less off-hand and more deliberate.
This willful minimalism serves to counterbalance a large number of overt cinematic references in both films. Musakov’s prime audience of Asian teenagers might find cause for occasional giggling at erudite references from the mouths of such young protagonists, but the use of von Trier, Rohmer, Kitano, Tarkovskii, Kustrurica, Chaplin, and Lloyd prompts older viewers in no uncertain terms to look below the sunny surface of box-office jollity. This prompt is especially clear when one considers how the boys use the work of these directors to take refuge from the bad storytelling of others, both from their fathers’ shameful biographies and the brainless blockbusters of Van Damme and Jackie Chan (which they simply refuse to rent).
Leaving a Gloomy Present (Perhaps for a Better Past)
At the end of the first film, the empty tram is used by one of the boys to escape the misery caused by his father’s philandering, but he is forced to leap from isolation back into the world when he sees his grandfather’s wheelchair stuck in the rails ahead. It is this theme of responsibility for one’s elders that is presented through the filter of Western cinematography. Issues of generational conflict are cause for laughter in the first movie, but become increasingly serious in the second. They serve to make several (unfunny) observations about responsibilities for one’s Fatherland, too, because Lola’s departure for London is not depicted sympathetically. The fact that her emigration is orchestrated to a song by folk diva Sevara Nazarkhan (who has stayed in Uzbekistan) reminds us of a similar overlap in the airborne scenes of Petr Todorovskii’s Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989). Lola will later discover that her young husband is less than faithful, but in part her decision to leave home for a world of looser morals remains precisely that—her decision.  Lola’s love has abandoned those who needed it most at home.
Heart attacks and ailing grandfathers in the sequel remove even more emotional support from the boys. This isolation of Musakov’s characters may have served what one Russian reviewer called a “utopian reality” in the funnier first film,  but it becomes a burden in the second. A couple of respected elders have a most telling discussion about dinosaurs that died out because “they couldn’t adapt to a new climate.” Again the foursome will be left alone. This is a developmental challenge that faces four friends, no longer drifting across the dreamy skies of youthful yearning but very much stuck with both feet on the ground floor of adult life.
All they can do is rely on one another. Any resulting metaphors of caring, sympathetic ties between contemporaries may sound a tad Soviet (à la “Druzhba narodov”), and indeed several reviews maintain that Musakov here is treading some familiar ground of perestroika moviemaking.  In the winter of 2003, a few months after the release of Boys in the Sky 2, I conducted an interview with Tursunbay Khalikov, Deputy Chairman of Uzbekkino to discuss the impending release of hit comedy Giant and Shorty (Dev bilan Pakana; dir. Dzhakhangir Kasymov, 2004). With reference to this issue, he explained the emotional, centrifugal types of social membership that have been promoted by Central Asian film. Khalikov believes that in large part this “traditional” aim of Uzbek cinema originated in Bollywood, given the bathetic emphases of Indian screenplays. Uzbek film likewise shows “how our people are very sensitive or sensual [chuvstvennye]” in the way they engage the world, to the point where Tashkent animators prefer to manufacture cartoons without reliance upon the “virtual” tools of computers, as “technology often means the loss of both national color and cordiality.”
Musakov has said that his comedy draws directly upon memories of a Soviet childhood, and many of the Uzbek reviews, like Khalikov, have drawn upon an occasionally antiquated rhetorical flourish. “Boys will be boys. They all go through a similar maturation, but that doesn’t stop them being kind and pure, like the cloudless blue sky of late summer.”  This type of phrasing is born of prior decades, as is the interpretation of Musakov’s childhood by the Tashkent press; similar stories of care, attention, and universal “cordiality” were always a supposed alternative to progressive or jingoistic rant (yet could be easily dragged back into policy-making).
A quick look at Uzbek scholarship of Musakov’s youth illustrates the prevalence of this style and why Boys in the Sky is suffering accusations of faux-romantic sovkovost', of some self-orientalizing tradition scribed across an “endless [Bukhara] sky and endless sun… [across] the radiant, blue sky, with its hot, burning sun.”  Uzbek audiences of the Thaw, for example, were informed that if a director or screenwriter does not understand or sympathize with the world of children, his films for younger viewers will always be destined for failure.  Tashkent cinema similarly hoped to promote this open-armed sentiment with the inclusive polyphony of incidental music, again like Bollywood, all of which would make any forward-looking assessment of “progressive” filmmaking meaningless (or so the story went). 
Central Asian socialist cinema, said its disconcertingly jovial advocates, made synthetic use of various forms in order to “unearth the fire in a human soul … that is striving to ignite viewers’ hearts.”  This kind of declaration—here a quote from Beethoven—advertised a cultural endeavor mapped out with acts of inclusion and addition. The ensuing challenge of inclusion in everything did not, however, lend itself to easy explication, said Uzbek scholars; the secret to an audience’s respect, love, and fidelity is always elusive.  Metaphors of childish kindness thus slid in and out of effable policy.
Authors insisted even at the outset of perestroika that kindly Asian cinema would be a wonderful encapsulation of “international” Soviet art(s), yet would not lose any sense of national or social specificity. It would not resort to an “injurious and phony representation of [some bounded, mapped and] national specificity, to unquestionable dogma.”  The result was an intensely lyrical synthesis, both national and international, a “system where all elements are profoundly interrelated, interwoven, interpenetrating, and in a state of endless development.”  At its outset, Boys in the Sky reflects and continues this soppy socialist custom.
Paradoxically, however, it is also here—amid these parallels with Uzbek storytelling before 1991—that accusations of Musakov’s Sovietness founder. Even if one claims that he tempers the roseate, sentimental scenes with certain elements of a more realistic late-1980s chernukha (such as an awful prison term given to one of the boys), Musakov’s goal, which he hoped would be reached “without didacticism,” lies outside the explicit use or rejection of policy. It is among the cinematic references that he positions the more complex, profoundly un-Soviet, and unfunny intentions of this “comedy.”
Leaving Policy (In Order to Reassess It)
Politics aside, one of the more condescending complaints about Boys in the Sky concerns overexposed lensing. This most provincial failure of an outdated aesthetic, with its bright cloudless sunshine and blurred palette, tends to whitewash the screen in the same way that our protagonists float in the unpeopled spaces of Tashkent. Their social spheres are made chromatically simple, as are the initial building blocks of their story. When, however, the timeframe of their four tales is stretched into young adulthood and Boys in the Sky 2, these uncomplicated blocks become both increasingly isolated and sadder. They become detached and fragmentary, unable to bridge a long story with clarity. The director himself has admitted that the sequel is “not a direct continuation” of the initial tale. The importance of these failures, of purported losses, can be explained through the director’s cinematic allusions, both within these two comedies and from his earlier work.
First of all, considering that Musakov’s Abdulladzhan (1991) was dedicated to Steven Spielberg, we might suggest that these four boys embody nothing more complicated than a conflict of youthful innocence with some ominous threat—the basic workings of E.T. (1982) or War of the Worlds (2005), say. That threat, however, is best understood not through vague nationalism or warmed-over socialism (as spoiled by Lola), but through the other reference-point of Abdulladzhan—Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1980).  Musakov leaves his boys in a simplified radiance so bright and so overexposed that it no longer looks like the skies of sunny Tashkent, but a disturbing, borderless luminosity to match the flat tonal range of Stalker’s “Zone.” Our Uzbek boys are nowhere in particular; this is a broader domain than anything international. Even the final scene of the sequel does not help us to chart their location or future with any confidence. Lola approaches the banker’s son (Bakhtiar, played by Musakov’s actual son); he is now a lowly mechanic, following his father’s loss of employment, and he turns around to see Lola in an empty car park. Neither character is smiling.
The weeping colors born of overexposure and the director’s increasingly fragmented, retrospective plot have been likened by a couple of reviews to Fellini’s Amarcord (1974) and indeed this is the core reference for Tashkent’s cinema-savvy youngsters. Left with nothing in today’s car parks, the director looks back at a few lonely faces, isolated in anchorless spaces, each no bigger than Rimini. Musakov’s emphasis upon mid- and long-distance shots forces us, as in Amarcord, to watch how these miniature, directionless social groups both fail in the present and remake themselves only emotionally—in an evanescing childhood. Melodramatic though it may sound, the sometimes hammy humor of the first film even begins to look like a quiet, studied series of parallels between the dangerous timeframe of Amacord and the current political climate in Uzbekistan.
Boys in the Sky may be just two movies full of pop-culture references that allow Erofeev to see Asian kids “happily” drinking the same Coca-Cola as him. Fellini’s film is full of a similar jollity, too: Musakov employs Chaplin and Lloyd, while the Italian makes use of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Gary Cooper. Musakov’s sentimental retrospection may likewise resemble either the international yearnings of a post-Soviet state film industry or even an “old-school” desire to abandon policy altogether. Given, however, the screenplay’s constant, explicit use of film history, Boys in the Sky 2 can work perfectly well as a trouble-free comedy on the visual plane, whilst making some very sad, Spielbergian observations on the textual—about the irreversible loss of innocence to cruel civic institutions. Musakov places innocence under considerable strain when the boys walk by a cinema billboard advertising von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) and end up hiding away in a “private,” prematurely adult showing of Emmanuelle (dir. J, Jaeckin, 1974). It remains only to see if Musakov will indeed make a third film—and whether Lola will smile at Bakhtiar. If she does not, maybe it is Karimov’s fault. Maybe.
David MacFadyen (University of California, Los Angeles)
1] On the changing attitudes to cinema as more “prestigious” entertainment after the success of Osmondagi bolalar, see Khokhriakova, S. “Uzbekskoe kino protiv Gollivuda,” Kul'tura, 22 (2004). On the high standards of the sequel vis à vis the original, see Zorkaia, N. “Mal'chiki v nebe,” Gazeta SNG (4 June 2004) and Myshkin, K. “Kinoshok zavershilsia,” Vremia (15 September 2003).
5] Tarkhanova, K. “Radosti i pechali malen'kogo kurorta,” Film.ru (15 March 2004). The lack of violence is also cause for celebration in Bobrova, N. “Nemnogo solntsa v kholodnom kino,” Kinoshock.ru (16 September 2003).
9] In her 2005 article for Kinokultura 7, Gul'nara Abikeyeva also noted that they boys’ decision not to leave Tashkent, despite their modern, marketable skills, was of sociopolitical importance.
Boys in the Sky - 2 (Osmondagi bolalar 2), Uzbekistan, 2003
Color, 86 min
Director: Zulfiqor Musakov
Screenplay: Zulfiqor Musakov, Rixsivoy Muhammadjonov
Cinematography: Abduralhim Ismailov
Editor: O'lmasxon Temirova
Art Direction: Sadriddin Ziyo
Composer: Anvar Ergashev
Music: Anvar Ergashev
Cast: Timur Musakov, Kristina Toirova, Muzaffar Sagdullaev, Aziz Sultanov, Malika Alimova
Zulfiqor Musakov: Boys in the Sky 2 (Mal'chiki v nebe 2/ Osmondagi bolalar 2) , 2003
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2006