Issue 33 (2011)

Klim Shipenko: Who Am I? (Kto ya?, 2010)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2011

Spoiler Alert.

shipenkoWho Am I? is the second feature film by 28-year-old, American-educated director Klim Shipenko [1], whose debut The Unforgiven (Neproshchennye, 2009) was panned by Russian critics for its narrative and stylistic convolution. A near antithesis to The Unforgiven, Shipenko’s most recent film borders on minimalism and features a small, albeit all-star cast, slow pacing, terse dialog, and a deceptively simple storyline. Ascribing his inspiration to the existentialist crime novels of French writer Sébastien Japrisot, Shipenko claims that with Who Am I? he wanted to appeal to both intellectual and mass audiences.[2] While skirting the line between auteur and commercial cinema, Who Am I? brings together art-house actors (most notably Aleksandr Iatsenko, known for his work in Boris Khlebnikov’s Free Floating, [Svobodnoe plavanie] 2006 and Aleksei Balabanov’s It Doesn’t Hurt, [Mne ne bol’no] 2006), rock-musicians (Sergei Galanin and his band “Ser’Ga”), and a chart-topping pop singer and sex symbol Zhanna Friske, most recently cast in the role of a glamorous vampire in Timur Bekmambetov’s blockbuster Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006).

who am IWhile Japrisot’s detective novels may have inspired the film’s mystery and suspense, a newspaper article, supposedly published in the “Glory of Sevastopol” newspaper in March 2004, provided Shipenko with the central idea for Who Am I?’s screenplay. According to a text presented in the film’s closing frames: “the article told a story about a young man who was found in the early morning in the train station in Sevastopol. The young man could not remember who he was. Everything that happened to the man before and after he was found is the fruit of the film authors’ imagination.” As the epilogue suggests, the film’s organizing principle is a fusion of reality, fiction, and fantasy. A skillful blend of police procedural and psychological detective drama, Who Am I? begins with a young man (Iatsenko) encountering a group of policemen at a train station in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The man cannot remember his name or address and carries no documents. He is taken to a police station where he is handed over to a seasoned detective (Anatolii Belyi) who is simultaneously investigating a recent homicide that is seemingly unrelated to the young amnesiac’s case. In a peculiar coincidence the murder victim, who was found without any documents on his person, is also unidentified.

who am IAssisting the police detective with the investigation of the amnesiac’s case are a psychiatrist from a local clinic (Sergei Gazarov) and a female journalist, who also happens to be the detective’s former lover (Viktoriia Tolstoganova). The investigators’ attempts to discover the protagonist’s identity by piecing together the bits of evidence found on him (a ticket to the concert of the rock band Ser’Ga, an admission stub to an amusement park, a business card from a local restaurant, along with a large stack of cash) form the film’s quasi-documentary storyline. Emulating the rhetorical register of a documentary film while evoking textual and visual authenticity, the police investigation scenes are shot in a monochromatic, dark, chernukha-esque color scheme set in an actual police station in Sevastopol. Adding another touch of realia, the film employs real-life police officers (not professional actors) as extras.

A parallel narrative, presented as a series of flashbacks interspersed with the police investigation, portrays episodes from the young man’s pre-amnesia life. In this parallel storyline we learn that Pasha (supposedly the man’s real name) lives with his mother in a provincial Crimean town and is a university dropout without a permanent job or any serious prospects. While working at a rental kiosk at a Crimean resort, Pasha meets a girl named Olia, who—in return for a favor—invites him to visit her in her hometown of Sevastopol. Pasha spends his meager savings on a bottle of Chanel №5 perfume as a gift for Olia, but soon after his arrival in Sevastopol it becomes clear that the girl stood him up. Since his return bus leaves not until the following morning, Pasha has a whole day and night to kill. While waiting, Pasha encounters Ania (played by Friske), a famous actress, who has just completed a film in Sevastopol and is waiting for her train back to Moscow.

who am IIn a narrative that blurs boundaries between fiction and reality, Pasha and Ania instantly connect and spend the rest of the day strolling around town together. In direct visual opposition to the scenes in the police station, the pair’s encounters are shot in lush and vibrant colors, evoking the nostalgic and poetic tones of Sergei Solov’ev’s ASSA (1987), which was also set in the Crimea. Tying the flashback scenes to the fragmentary evidence that the investigators have found on the young amnesiac, the couple has lunch at a local restaurant and goes to an amusement park (a scene on a Ferris wheel appears to be a direct reference to the aforementioned ASSA). Pasha and Ania also attend a concert by the rock group Ser’Ga, and later—in a none-too-subtle reference to chance and fortune as well as the cash that the amnesiac was carrying—win a large sum of money at a casino. The couple then spends most of the night in a hotel room that becomes the setting for a 2-minute-long, explicit sexual scene that reveals a considerable amount of Friske’s naked flesh. Perhaps in a marketing ploy by the film’s producers, this torrid scene became a hot topic of discussion on the Russian Internet well in advance of the film’s appearance in theaters. After the lovemaking Pasha goes to a liquor store to purchase champagne (which apparently was not available at the luxury hotel where they were staying). In the course of his errand he gets into a brief fight with an unknown man. One of the men—the combatants’ identities are obscured in the darkness of the poorly lit street—receives a blow to the head and falls to the ground.

who am IAt this point the film’s narrative rewinds back to the police investigation. After a local newspaper publishes Pasha’s photo, his mother identifies him, contacts the police and the investigator and the psychiatrist put Pasha on a bus back home. Shortly thereafter, a girl named Olia (who happens to be the girl who stood up Pasha) comes to the police station to report that her boyfriend has been missing for several days. While describing the night before her boyfriend’s disappearance, the young woman narrates a sequence of events that should ring a bell with the film’s viewer: she recalls that she and her boyfriend dined in a restaurant, visited an amusement park, attended Ser’Ga’s concert, and finally went to a casino where they won a large stack of money. As the detective begins to realize that the man whom he has just put on a bus might be the murderer of Olia’s missing boyfriend and / or the murdered man might be Olia’s boyfriend, another set of fast-paced flashbacks takes the viewer to another version of Pasha’s arrival in Sevastopol. Here Pasha sees Olia meeting another man. Pasha then follows the couple as their date progresses (restaurant, amusement park, rock concert, casino) and voyeuristically observes their hotel room love-making. When Olia’s boyfriend leaves the hotel alone, Pasha, hiding in the darkened street, ambushes him, striking the man on the head and killing him instantly. With all evidence indicating that Pasha is indeed the killer and is probably feigning his amnesia, the detective puts out a call to detain the bus on which Pasha is traveling. However, when the police stop the bus, they discover that Pasha had already gotten off at a train station. The film’s closing episode shows a romantic rendezvous of Pasha with the actress Ania in a train car. With the rock band Ser’Ga’s song about an escape (perhaps an escape from reality) playing in the background, the film seems to suggest a possible new beginning of the protagonist’s real or imaginary life.

who am IA superficial reading of the film’s title Who Am I? implies a search for the protagonist’s identity as a key narrative trope. Indeed, as befits a police procedural, the film’s chief conflict centers on the police literally identifying the amnesiac protagonist as well as investigating the murder of an unidentified victim. Simultaneously, the film’s original working title 1,000 Kilometers Away from My Life (1000 kilometrov ot moei zhizni)—derived from a quote from the above-mentioned French detective writer Japrisot—symbolically suggests some sort of existential crisis underlying the film’s diegesis. Indeed, a blend of nostalgia, ennui, and the quest for identity seem to shape the existence of all of the film’s characters. Although none of their personal stories are fully explored (and seem tangential to the film’s narrative), we do get a glimpse of their individual situations. The famous actress played by Friske wonders whether she should continue with her unfulfilling career, the psychiatrist mourns his lost (perhaps deceased) daughter, while the detective and the journalist pine for the happy moments of their former romance. The amnesiac protagonist—his memory loss aside—appears to be the only “happy” character in the film, inspiring the female journalist to pose a Nietzschean question about “blessed forgetfulness:” would forgetting everything and starting life from scratch bring one happiness? The film’s other “deeper,” albeit cliché, message is articulated through the words of the psychiatrist who delivers a didactic monologue about the protagonist’s generation, that he pithily diagnoses as being “confused.” The psychiatrist then offers a motivational appeal to the young generation to “believe” and “not to give up on life” promising that “life will never give up on you….”

While the film’s supposedly philosophical undercurrent ultimately does not prove pivotal to the narrative, the sense of quiet desperation hanging over the film’s characters heightens the suspense and tension of the action. Although the film did not attract many customers to Russian cine-plexes and received only faint praise at the prestigious Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi in 2010, Who Am I? is a solid work of commercial genre cinema, with well-crafted suspense, powerful acting, elegant editing, and exquisite camera work.  

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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1] Shipenko’s formal study of film-making comes from the Department of Cinema and Television Arts at the California State University, Northridge.

2] Maria Mukhina, Interview with Klim Shipenko “Ya staralsya ne byt’ pretentsioznym.”

Who Am I? Russia, 2010
Color, 98 mins
Director: Klim Shipenko
Screenplay: Klim Shipenko in collaboration with Timur Vainshtein
Cinematography: Andrei Ivanov
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Zhanna Friske, Sergei Gazarov, Anatolii Belyi, Viktoriia Tolstoganova, Mikhail Babichev, Tatiana Fedorovskaia, Konstantin Demidov
Music: Il’ia Truskovskii, Vladimir Khlopovskii
Producer: Timur Vainshtein, Rauf Atamalibekov
Production: Vait Media

Klim Shipenko: Who Am I? (Kto ya?, 2010)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2011

Updated: 07 Jul 11