Writer: Mustafa Duygulu and Jim Taihuttu
Director: Jim Taihuttu
Despite what the movies show us, so much of warfare is about waiting, the endless expectation that the enemy will engage or something significant will happen. Mustafa Duygulu and Jim Taihuttu’s film The East released on digital download understands this well as a group of Dutch soldiers are sent on a peacekeeping mission in Indonesia during the Second World War. The constant struggle of long periods of inaction and the distorting effects on the men who fought is well realised in this overlong but engaging combat drama.
Fresh-faced recruit Johan arrives in Indonesia after the Second World War in a company tasked with protecting the local population from bandits and insurgents. As he settles into a watching brief, Johan and his comrades struggle with the humidity and boredom, finding distraction in a love affair with a prostitute. But as the mission changes, Johan meets a mysterious soldier know as ‘The Turk’ and a more proactive unit is formed.
With war movies set in this theatre, the climate and sense of cultural alienation is as great a challenge to the soldiers as the men they are fighting. There is a bubbling aggression which emerges in The East as men seek conflict amongst themselves while Johan experiences a number of unexpectedly violent outbursts that go against his previously fair nature. It is his brutalisation and its effects that shape the story.
At close to 2.5 hours, it does get rather repetitive though and while Johan’s new mission supporting ‘The Turk’ offers a different narrative direction in the second half of the film, Johan’s outbursts and his doe-eyed mooning after local prostitute Gita offer little character progression. Ultimately, it becomes an entirely different kind of film, what was a war movie about innocence lost because a strange action thriller with more than hint of Lord of the Flies that makes the film’s ultimate purpose and message rather confused.
All of this is balanced with sometimes pointed and, occasionally pointless, post-war sequences in which Johan struggles with PTSD and his reintegration into an ungrateful society where civilians have no interest in him or the war he’s given everything for. As the audience understands more about Johan’s wartime experience however, the value of these scenes diminishes with the desire to create a tidy moral ending of sorts.
Director Taihuttu gives most energy to the earliest scenes in which Lieke Scholman’s production design and Lennart Verstegen evoke the 1940s setting and bring a warmth to the visuals that seems both alluring and forbidding in ways that reflects the character experience. But the narrative gets lost as the Taihuttu refocuses on the violent elite force and exactly why the company start to terrorise rather than protect is a little hazy, the switch signalled only by a generic training montage.
Martijn Lakemeier works hard as the lonely Johan, required to trade in wide-eyed innocence for blood-thirsty frenzy but Lakemeier is convincing when the story arc is not. The way in which his own innate brutality surprises him is interestingly captured, while Johan clings to fragments of his former humanity for which the actor finds a silent expression.
The East is at its best as a character piece, charting the shock of the combat experience in a rarely portrayed theatre of war and how it changed men irreparably. While it is tempting to hang everything on big action sequences, the truth of war is far more complex, and, like the men in this movie, had the director chosen just to hold the line, the result would have been far more satisfying.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents The East on Digital Download 4 October.