Watching My Name Is Ki, the debut by promising director Leszek Dawid, one might conclude that little has changed for women in his native Poland since the fall of communism. The economic situation that Dawid depicts is dire enough to beg the question of what, if any, support has been put in place for single mothers in what is now one of the sturdiest European economies. The movie’s protagonist, Ki (Roma Gasiorowska) is an aspiring artist, let down by her child’s father who seems more interested in overcoming his own emotional hang-ups. She finds herself blackmailed by a bigoted social worker and at her wits’ end.
The movie is haunted, albeit indirectly, by Agnieszka Holland’s fierce and brilliant A Single Woman. Holland’s film was an uncompromising study of a single mother, Irena (Maria Chwalibóg), her alienation and powerlessness, in a society that was closed-off and shell-shocked from years of communist brainwashing. Nineteen eighty one in Poland was when independent unions were squashed and military rule imposed. It was a dark period, and the final murder of Irena, at the hands of her handicapped, socially inept lover, Jacek (Bogusław Linda), who promises to take her abroad but ends up strangling her in a hotel room on their ludicrously failed escape attempt to the West, is symbolic of the brief period of openness and euphoria followed by interment camps and despair.
In contrast to the plain Irena, Dawid’s Ki wears fashionable hoodies, dangling hoop-earrings, and brightly colored, layered outfits that make her look like a poster child for Benetton or Uniqlo. Ki also comes from a different milieu: Irena was a struggling postal worker consumed by providing basic necessities such as food, heat, or even water; Ki, though struggling, is defiant and refuses the daily drudgery to stand in her way, at times to the detriment of her child. Yet when Ki says, “I’m so screwed,” it’s as if she’s summing up motherhood for the both of them. Beyond depicting the disdain that the two women encounter (outside the circle of Ki’s bohemian friends), both movies do a particularly fine job of showing young women who, with desperation and in spite of their obvious love for their children, choose individualism and self-determination over self-sacrifice.
At times individualism is bound to selfishness: Ki is both inseparable from her child and a charming opportunist. Her role has been scripted with enough contradictions to invite our sympathy—for her youth, beauty, and ingénue foolishness—and dislike, particularly when she springs her child on others, without consideration for social norms or personal schedules. Yet what excuses her in the viewers’ eyes is the sense that Ki is hellbent on beating the odds. And where Holland’s Irena let herself be duped by the feckless Jacek, Ki’s appetite for life is fearlessly independent of any preconceived romantic or gender notions.
Dawid gets much credit for delivering a subtle take on postmodern feminism: Ki describes herself jokingly as a “terrorist,” but dismisses the idea that labels can do much for today’s women. Equally disappointing are her spats with psychotherapy: Ki shows up to one session hoping to impress the social workers who threaten to take away her child, but is too distracted by her son’s frolicking, and put off by the therapist’s role-playing of her father, which strikes her as old-school and tainted by sentiment. Touchy-feely fatherhood is so out of place for a woman who’s barely known men’s kindness it almost seems passé.
Ki’s path to self-definition lands her nowhere, and this may be the main flaw of the otherwise poignant and watchable My Name Is Ki. After some predictable plotting, where Ki gets closer to a grumpy but otherwise well-adjusted roommate (prototypical Mr. Nice on the quiet, cerebral side), the script seems to run out of ideas of how to tie up a story whose energies spill in so many directions. Without the overarching symbolism that powered Holland’s film, or her strong absurdist bend, the ebbs and flows of this slice-of-life drama lose the early dynamism of Ki’s girlishness, or the spark of her first attempts to find a unique artistic voice. Are all of Ki’s attempts ultimately futile? Are we to hope that she might still fall in the arms of her surly suitor? Opportunities pass Ki by, but Dawid and his scriptwriter, Pawel Ferdak, along with the volcanic Gasiorowska in the title role create enough tension to keep us guessing.
Leszek Dawid’s My Name Is Ki recently screened at Indiescreen.