The East (War, Drama, Thriller) [Based on True Events] (2020)
Director: Jim Taihuttu
Writer: Jim Taihuttu, Mustafa Duygulu
Stars: Martijn Lakemeier, Jonas Smulders, Marwan Kenzari, Coen Bril
In the midst of the Indonesian War of Independence, a young Dutch soldier is being deployed to the Dutch East Indies in an attempt to liberate the natives from the authority of a man named Sukarno. His thoughts are conflicted as he tries to determine what is truly right.
Previously directing Dutch films "Wolf" and "Rabat", Jim Taihuttu tackles this war film, set in the Dutch East Indies, presenting conflict, which is both physical and mental and will provide different feelings for those with history on either side. For the screenplay, the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies has been consulted as well as partners from Indonesia, trying to depict such a topic in an honest manner. It has been produced by the New Amsterdam Film Company, Salto Films, Wrong Men North, France 2 Cinema and Moonkey while distributed by Splendid Film and Amazon Prime Video.
On his first deployment, Johan de Vries (Martijn Lakemeier) is sent to Indonesia in the Central Java province, a reasonably calm area. Their reception is cold, and the natives seem hostile to their arrival. Not every soldier is as conflicted as Johan, and even he desires the belief they're saving the Indonesian people from the now internal threats after the Japanese are gone.
Polarising from the beginning, perhaps a portrayal such as "The East" should be. Not being a traditional war film, depicting a war still evocative of bleak memories for the Indonesian and Dutch-Indonesian populations. Although, Taihuttu's message seems to be about the racist intent and war crimes committed, certainly a fair stance but lacking ambiguity. Still, for such a long time, this film wouldn't have been created; the fact that it has should be regarded as a good thing.
It's a severely lengthy film, with over two hours of running time. It opts for a slow progression and dramatised content without the warfare usually depicted in such projects. With or without battle sequences, "The East" still isn't lacking violence and depicts it in a highly visual manner alongside foul language and themes of internalised racism. There's an accentuation on the experience of the soldiers; their thoughts and experiences are prominent, Lakemeier's Johan becoming a vital part. On a more basal front, it was positive to see such variety between the troops, each with a differing dialect showing the obligatory military service in effect without having to tell the viewer directly.
Fairly linear as progression goes, we see moments of flash-forwards with Johan struggling to be inserted back into regular society, confronted with a world that has moved on without him. Once again, this is a vital visual aid to how these men were mentally affected by what happened during their time served. There's a time within "The East" for every element, such as comradery, betrayal and romance. Along with the movie's length, it also makes it feel overdone and perhaps overcomplicated.
A tale of morality, questioning if there was any sense of justice to be gained from a conflict such as the Indonesian War of Independence or yet another example of colonialism at its worst. Besides ethical and moral ambiguity, "The East" shows itself as a compelling war thriller and will undoubtedly become a chip on the director's shoulder. I'm glad such a film could be made, and it's a cinematic portrayal of the sensitive times but severely lacking ambiguity.
It’s truly admirable that Taihuttu decided to produce this film, despite being a sore subject.