By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/17/23 – One of the most touching films in the recent Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles has been This is What I Remember (Esimde, Kyrgyzstan, 2023), written and directed by Aktan Arym Kubat. The story is about the sudden reappearance of an old man named Zarlyk in a small village in Kyrgyzstan after his disappearance some 23 years earlier. Zarlyk, a man with a wife, a son, friends and a respected place in his village, suddenly disappeared at one point. His son, Kubat (played by Aktan Arym Kubat’s real son, Mirlan Abdykalykov), now grown, tracks down his father on the internet and finds him in Russia where, as the result of an accident, he has lost his memory and, evidently, his power of speech. The film opens as Kubat returns home with his father. “This is What I Remember” is Kyrgyzstan’s submission to the Academy of Motion Pictures for consideration for Best International Feature Film in 2024.
What is fascinating about This is What I Remember is the wide range of responses to Zarlyk’s appearance. Kubat wants desperately for his father to be who he used to me. Kubat’s wife, Meerim (Elnura Osmonalieva), tries to be helpful, but her patience begins to wear thin. Zarlyk eats heartily, but he does not respond emotionally, except to one person: his granddaughter, Syrga (Ainazik Seyitkanova). He plays with her and together they engage in the one activity Zarlyk takes pleasure in: gathering garbage and, with the help of his son and others, bringing it to the dump.
Because Zarlyk was presumed dead, his wife, Umsunai (Taalaikan Abazova), has remarried. Her second husband, Jaichy (Nazym Mendebairov) is a gangster type who is the richest person around and thus the most powerful. Jaichy’s mother, Kadicha (Anar Nazarkulova), appears to be the person most threatened by Zarlyk’s reappearance. She fears that Umsunai will leave her son and return to her first husband. She invokes Islam to support her position, and she tries to convince others that Zarlyk is insane and should be sent off to a psychiatric asylum.
Eventually the village elders gather to decide what to do with Zarlyk. On the one hand, he does appear to be bizarre, at best, but on the other hand the village certainly has become cleaner since he arrived.
The story seems to offer the possibility that Zarlyk might recover his memory, but it is really Umsunai’s memory that is most important. At the very end of the film, Umsunai sings a song that shows that the title has a completely different meaning. She has just wandered with the small bunch of trees that have been on the edge of village since she first was courted by Zarlyk as a young girl. The song is heard outside a gathering in a house by Zarlyk and it seems – ever so briefly – to something he remembers from his own past. Zarlyk represents a “mankurt,” someone who has lost touch with his or her historical and national roots, and who has forgotten their family and ancestors and the values they represented.
Aktan Arym Kubat has stated that while Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, his country’s traditional values were under attack, and the Kyrgyz people were forced to parrot the beliefs allowed by the Soviet government. When Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, it was assumed that traditional values could reemerge. But instead, Islamic hardcore fundamentalists arrived and began to impose their own version of Shari laws on of what one is allowed to believe. Combined with the corrupt economic bullying of people like Jaichy, the freedom that many Kyrgyz thought they would gain with independence has proved illusory. The character of Zarlyk symbolizes this lost set of values.