The creepiest moment of David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES is probably this: we see a group of young English hooligans walking through a cemetery. Instantly I am reminded of the violent football matches that announced the Yugoslav breakup in the late 80s. We can sense nationalist passions that have been repressed by technological mediation. For someone who lived through the breakup of Yugoslavia, this is merely déjà vu. Seems like Cronenberg put two and two together when he realized technology didn’t really solve the world conflicts of the 1940s.
So the EASTERN PROMISES we get from Cronenberg’s film are the promises of a new Cold War: America and Russia in civilization clinch.
The film plays out like a perverted version of the Moses narrative, with Russian mafia standing in for the Egyptian empire. There’s a baby, born out of rape and pillage, found in his mother’s bleeding stomach. At some point the Russian mafia captures it. But just as Moses is about to be thrown into the river, a kindly Westerner (Viggo Mortenssen) and his soulmate (Naomi Watts) will save him, thereby preventing the blood feud from leading to yet another Resurrection. The film ends with the soothing image of the American finding the ”Russian soul” in vodka while the strong independent woman mothers Moses on her own. It could be an alternative to the familial-fundamentalist nightmare looming behind the façade of ”advanced Western civilization”. Or so it seems on first glance.
As represented by the androgynous Mortenssen, the West is only seemingly the carrier of Light. Nearing the end we find out that Mortenssen is actually a cop who infiltrated the mafia to act out the traditional Russian narrative as the family’s most talented hitman. However, through his trademark clinical horror, Cronenberg never hesitates to show that Mortenssen identifies himself with the role to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish between Viggo and his Russian simulation. Note his clinical precision when cutting off the fingers of the frozen corpse! In this way, it seems that the hyper-technological Western society not only reproduces, but also, amplifies the gender and power structures of the Russian mafia.
Many reviewers remarked that the film is pronouncedly low-tech. To the contrary! The reason we don’t see any technological gadgets is that the men’s bodies are literally hi-tech machines. Compared to the men, the motorcycle that Naomi Watts drives represents the most old-fashioned piece of technology in the film. It’s no incident that the movie plays out so smoothly, almost without sound, like a well-oiled robot. The human beings in it are actually cyborgs. Cronenberg wanted to invoke the feeling that society produces biotechnological entities. And this is just the right conclusion to make in our post-Videodrome era: we are already robots.