Tradition and revenge in the wild west of modern Poland.
We’ve covered the wilder and more disreputable end of Polish crime cinema before on The Reprobate, but – as the inclusion in film festivals might suggest, Piotr Adamski’s film is a cut above – at least in terms of respectability. Whether or not that is what you actually want from a film like this is open to question, of course.
The title (guaranteed to make it bloody hard to look up online) sets it up as a modern, East European play on the classic Western, particularly those themes of circular vengeance that drive that genre. In this case, the Hatfields and the McCoys are the Nowaks and the Kowalskis, two families that don’t seem to be traditional crime cartels – we certainly don’t see evidence of criminality spilling into the wider world – but who are caught up in a seemingly endless blood feud, where each death must be avenged by another – or, because this is the modern world (or at least a strange variant of it), a payment that neither family can afford must be made as compensation to bring things to a halt. The film opens with teenage girl Klara hunting down and shooting her target, thus becoming the new target for the other family – more specifically, fellow teenager Ewa. But Ewa is reluctant to become a murderer and sees the madness of this never-ending cycle of killing, and she finally pulls Klara onside as an ally in a plan to find the money to finally bring this ancient feud to an end.
Adamski’s film is a handsome, slick and very cold affair – there are moments of emotion, but on the whole, everyone seems entirely buttoned-up and repressed, as if the years of tit-for-tat murder has drained them all of humanity. The two families even interact in a civil manner, the killing so utterly ingrained into their psyches that it allows them to behave like normal human beings the rest of the time. They even have lawyers involved to deal with the legal aspects of the feud (I don’t know the ins and outs of Polish law, but I assume that this is not something that could really be happening), putting it on some sort of official status. So bringing this whole system to an end becomes less about saving individual lives and more about overthrowing tradition. And that’s the real narrative here. Behind the obvious crime drama, the film is about new generations – new female generations – overthrowing years of traditionalism and patriarchal control to create a new tradition. In that, it plays with current Polish – and East European – politics and the knee-jerk shift away from liberal democracy in some of those countries, though the film doesn’t labour the point thank goodness – nor does it convincingly suggest that the brave new world that Ewa and Klara are looking to bring into being will be successful – human nature suggests that at some point, it will break down, or possibly become worse; that without the controlled, regulated feud that has currently existed, things may just become a free-for-all. We see enough evidence that these are gun-happy, thuggish characters who could easily explode – and even Klara seems too much of a loose cannon to really toe the line. Ewa – very much the idealist pushing for a better world – seems to be too caught up in her own dreams and fears to see what the society around her is like, and by pushing for change too quickly is possibly about to make things worse. We only have to look at Russia to see how that sort of thing happens on a national scale.
Adamski doesn’t offer any answers, though it’s clear that he is aware of all this – without spoiling anything, it is clear that this is not going to end on a positive note, and even if the two families do hold on to their truce, third parties will come along to muddy the water and continue the violence (we have to assume that in the universe of this film, these feuds are commonplace and so easily expanded – at one point, we see hints of this, as outsiders criticise Ewa for not carrying out her execution quickly enough). The film shows the insanity of all this, but the problem with insane systems is that they are very difficult to change, and will leave a lot of casualties along the way.
The coldness of Eastern is both impressive and alienating – the film has a deliberately slow pace and a stylish look that feels impressive but isn’t necessarily involving. At 74 minutes, the movie doesn’t hang around, but it has a leisurely approach to events and a very slim central story that is somewhat distancing for the viewer. Neither girl is relatable enough for us to really care that much about what happens and this is where the studied coldness perhaps lets the film down – if we knew and cared more about them, we might be more invested in their plight. Or perhaps we just need more information about this world, where murder and kidnapping are not only the norm but somehow a way of keeping society functioning. Either way, it’s the sort of film you’ll admire more than enjoy. By the end, I felt myself wishing that the film had featured at least a sniff of the wild outrageousness of Patryk Vega’s deranged movies, but that’s just me. Always wanting more. That shouldn’t put you off Eastern, which is an admirable, slick and thought-provoking film that deserves to be seen.
Eastern is available to watch as part of the Raindance Film Festival 2020 on November 5th (with Q&A) and 7th.
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