Festival Films: Russia’s ‘Who Am I?’

A man stumbles into a train station, looking pale, disoriented, and lost. He attracts the attention of nearby police officers; they approach him and ask for some form of identification. The man stares blankly in response. Meanwhile, no-nonsense detective Sergei is investigating an apparently motiveless homicide.

So begins “Who Am I?”–the Russian film competing for this year’s grand prize in the international film category at the 34th Cairo International Film Festival.

High-school dropout Pacha (Aleksandr Iatsenko) suffers from amnesia, although the cause behind his sudden affliction remains unclear. While he remains able to recite song lyrics and recall important historical dates, the young man can’t remember his own name, address or any of the details leading up to his memory loss–which infuriates the aforementioned detective, who ends up having to deal with Pacha.

When a routine search through the amnesiac’s pockets reveals a massive sum of money that can’t be accounted for, Sergei begins to suspect that there’s something suspicious about Pacha–and he’s not the only one.

With the seemingly unrelated murder introduced so early on in the film, audience members are sure to realize that it must be connected to the main storyline. This isn’t necessarily a problem–some films are made to be puzzles, dropping clues and leaving false trails for the audience to navigate in a race to fit the pieces together before the onscreen denouement.

Unfortunately, “Who Am I?” is not one of those films. The simple mystery, economic execution and lack of red herrings all combine to ensure that viewers will have accurately surmised the ending long before director Klim Shipenko gets round to revealing the truth about Pacha. To make matters worse, the film pointlessly drags on for about twenty minutes afterward–more than enough time to mull over the storyline’s crippling plot holes, of which there are many.

Which is a shame, since “Who Am I?” starts off well enough, with solid performances all around–despite the fact that the actors clearly weren’t given much to work with. Iatsenko presents an intriguing character in Pacha but, try as he might, is increasingly let down by the script’s missteps, which rapidly pile up in the film’s third act. As the object of his affection, Zhanna Friske, better known for her Russian chart-topping pop songs, is appropriately alluring. The real star of the show, however, is Anatolii Belyi, elevating the clichéd world-weary police detective role with a performance that deftly shifts from humorous to intimidating.

The film is supposedly based on true events that took place several years ago, and were famously documented in a Russian newspaper article with the same title as the film. However, a disclaimer at the end of the film points out that only one of the character’s names was borrowed from his real-life counterpart.

Not to be confused with the (far more enjoyable) 1998 Jackie Chan action vehicle–which also used amnesia as a major plot device–Shipenko’s “Who Am I?” is an unusual choice for any international film festival. It is very much a genre film–a straightforward amnesiac con movie (for further examples of the genre, see this Eid’s “Zaheimer,” “Ibn al-Onsol,” and “Bolbol Hayran,” although you’d be better off if you didn’t).

There’s nothing vague or ambiguous about the film’s intentions, nor its analyses of the few characters pivotal to the plot: all are equally one-dimensional. Pacha’s pre-amnesia character is only superficially explored in one short throwaway scene, while the unexpected and brief foray into the detective’s personal life is so inconsequential that it feels like an obligation.

An equally unnecessary and nostalgically corny sex scene, along with a score that too often sounds like it was lifted from an early 90s Bruckheimer/Simpson effort, all add up to the same conclusion: “Who Am I?” is not a festival film–it’s Russia’s belated answer to “The Usual Suspects.” But, alas, it’s nowhere near as clever.

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