Eastern Promises: All in the family

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Title: Eastern Promises
Director: David Cronenberg
Language: English, with some Russian
Year: 2007
Critical Reception: People's Choice Award for Best film at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Kudos from Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, The New York Times' A. O. Scott, Chicago Reader's Johnathan Rosenbaum, Variety's Todd McCarthy,Village's Voice J. Hoberman.
Psych Index: Constructivism, Post-modernism, Narrative Psychology
In Brief: Cronenberg's follow up to A History of Violence began with the death of a teen mother and the birth of her daughter. The midwife who took on the victim's case, Anna (Naomi Watts), with what little information she could obtain from the victim's diary, traced her way to the head of a London-based Russian mafia family, Semyon (Armin Muehller-Stahl). Semyon, determined to protect his family and keep his son's (Vincent Cassell) involvement a dirty little secret, proceeded to keep the matter from surfacing by enlisting the help of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), his son's mysterious driver and right hand man. What ensued was a violent game of survival, and Nikolai and Anna found themselves doing what perhaps neither intended to do.
Comical, absurd, and brutal are all apt adjectives to describe the film. At its heart, Eastern Promises is not only an exercise in genre deconstruction, but also an examination of the new, lonely, postmodern human family. There is no nuclear family to be found anywhere in the film. Instead, each character seems to pick up the separate pieces and attempt to make them whole. This rather constructivistic approach defines the new post modern family: family is what you make of it.

Anna is a newly single woman who lives with her mother, and this family of origin seems to consist of just one other family member: her uncle. Semyon, the head of the Russian mafia family, is a single father. He raises his only son, Kirill, filling both the traditional mother role (he cooks and throws parties) and father role (he's also the breadwinner of the father-son family). Kirill is a playboy, bearing contempt for women, his father, and himself. His love-hate affection extends to his right-hand man, Nikolai, whom he may or may not have sexual feelings towards. He is alone, for everybody - even his father and Nikolai - looks upon him as an isolated, impotent man with little insight about his own situation. Nikolai is a lone ranger with dubious intents and agenda. At one point, he declares to the panel that officially inducts him into the Russian mafia family rank that he has no mother or father. Elsewhere, the father-and-son duo Azim and Ekrim serve as the exclamation mark on the "one is the loneliest number" phrase. Each character yearns for wholeness of family, even when that ideal at times seems like an empty promise.

Within this new societal structure, a different breed of man is born. Nikolai is the new face of post modern man looking for his place atop the chain. His motives are cloaked in uncertainty - uncertainty being a hallmark of postmodernism. Is he or is he not a man of virtuous morality? He declares himself dead at the age of 15 - though one wonders if that's only a front to appease the environment he operates in, or if he is really spiritually barren. He keeps his eyes on the prize, but he also stops to smell the roses. Although he seems flirtatious towards Anna, he does not refuse Kirill's physical and emotional demands. The film is fascinated with the biology of human form, and Nikolai is examined the same way a scientist examines a specimen: his physical form in full, accompanied by his instinctive reactions to his environment. Particularly telling is the incredibly choreographed fight sequence in which Nikolai - in his full animal instinct mode - fights off a couple of men in the nude. "Who are you?" Anna would ask. It would seem that he's our new cave man on display.

Eastern Promises also addresses the hopeful ideal of the grass being greener on the other side. "The West" has been seen as the promised land to many people from all over the world, yearning for a better life. Immigrants to the States, Canada, U.K., etc. know all about the promised land, and the dreams - achieved or broken - that go along with it. Tatianna, the teenage mother, seeks to escape an impoverished life by hanging to the promise of a better life elsewhere - in this case, the East for her. East or West, it seems a matter of narrative construction. Narrative psychology postulates that the meaning we attribute to human behaviour and discourse are largely dependent on the stories we tell ourselves. There are a couple of instances in the film in which a life is told like a story - Tatiana's diary is read many times like a story, and Nikolai's stories are told on his body through the various tattoos as well as his confession to the Russian mafia family. When a person falls into a desperate situation, what s/he tells herself greatly affects his/her decision. The grass seems greener on the other side for Tatiana - both the promise of escape from poverty, and the promise of escape from her miserable condition. In both instances, her action logically follows her narrative, even though it may seem unwise to others. The grass may not be greener, but it gives hope where there's nothing else.

The film also touches on the explosive issues of homosexuality and racism. However, rather than confronting the characters directly, the film lets them live in a bigger world and face the possible consequences of their choice. Kirill may or may not be homosexual (the film strongly alludes to, but does not explicitly states so), yet his affection for Nikolai complicates the extreme defensive reaction he has to others' accusation of his being one. Anna's uncle expresses strong racist remarks, which prompts a subsequent politically correct reprimand follows by a subtler racist scold. He is clearly a product of his environment, and the film refreshingly does not make a moral judgment on his behaviour. It fits in with the way the film is handled - with the detachment and curiosity of a scientist at heart.

The film succeeds in finding the unfamiliarity in the familiarity. It offers a complex take on the face of humanity now. It constructs and deconstructs all at once, making it an ideal film for fans of narrative theory to view. At the very least, it presents a testimony on the loneliness of the world and the need to make the connections wherever we can, as the family unit disintegrates and reforms.

Thoughts in point form:
1. The new 'family' - it's what you make.
2. One is the loneliest number: juxtapose of mafia family and the singleness of family - single mother, single daughter, single uncle, single father, single son.
3. The portrait of a "new" man of power - playing all sides, thirsting for power, but for questionable, ambiguous reasons
4. The fascination with 'man as animal' - even violence seems less about aggression than about reactionary survival measures
5. The undermining form of narrative - unfamiliarity of familiarity, including play-on stereotypes (gay only son, joke about black doctor)
6. Comical, absurd, brutal violence
7. Image of unarmed man against archaic form of arms - animalistic
8. Brave performance, great score, daft direction
9. "eastern promises" play on "western promises" - "the grass is greener on the other side", looking for ideals that ultimately don't deliver
10. brave work is meant to be seen once, as the majority of the audience would be placed in a discomforting zone and wouldn't like to repeat the experience, even though they're provoked by it
11. shares with A History of Violence the fresh take on a familiar genre and a fascination with the biology of violence, but focuses less on violence and more on social loneliness, even though it features one of the most interesting fight sequences committed to the big screen.
12. flirt w/ issues of homosexuality and racism


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