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Eastern (2021): Film Review

The debut full-length feature film from Piotr Adamski, Eastern, is a fresh, dystopian genre hybrid that’s lean but full to the brim of thrills and intriguing concepts.

The opening of Piotr Adamski’s Eastern firmly establishes the attitudes towards its central blood feud from its two leads: Ewa Nowak (Maja Pankiewicz) is encouraged to stand up straight, and recite the ways in which one might dishonour a man. With an air of apathy right from the off, Ewa wants no active part in ritualistic murders. Klara Kowalksa (Paulina Krzyzanska), meanwhile, is introduced mid-hunt, rifle held aloft in a dense woodland. She catches her prey, a young man, and shoots him with barely a flinch. It’s a heck of an opening to Adamski’s part cat-and-mouse chase, part thriller, part familial drama and part satirical Western debut.

In a bright, orderly, peaceful suburban neighbourhood, two families – the Nowaks and the Kowalskis – have been trading honour killings for decades. After the death of his son, the family patriarch (Marcin Czarnik) orders his daughter Ewa to avenge him by killing his killer, youngest Kowalski daughter Klara. What follows is the acceptance and rebellion against this dystopian, ruthless ‘code’ from two young women uninterested in petty feuds and keen to stay alive.

With a tight edit at just 78 minutes, Eastern doesn’t expend much energy on backstory and exposition. There’s limited justification for the feud itself, and a lot of bizarre traditions observed go unexplored. But it’s to the film’s benefit. The tension and stakes are immediately established and the momentum never dips. It’s a quiet, unobtrusive film at times and its shocks are well-executed. Pankiewicz and Krzyzanska are an effective double act: the stoicism and grit from the former, with the latter’s almost-childlike whimsy forming a character dichotomy that is really engaging. Their chemistry is really palpable, at any moment they might either lunge at each other or share a smile, and they manage to convey a wealth of family history without ever really having a deep conversation.

Piotr Adamski's Eastern
Eastern (Studio Munka)

Adamski’s background as a conceptual artist is apparent in the styling of the film: warm toned, planned out to the minute detail and an ingenious hybridity of carefully curated ‘safe’ suburbia and a strict cycle of bloody violence. It’s a confident, assured film from the first-time director. The slow, careful stalking of Ewa’s hunt for Klara through – surreally and ironically – a closed safari park, is thrilling and full of tension, despite the shoot-out lasting mere seconds and happening mostly off screen. His subtle disparaging for toxic masculinity and willingness to trust his audience, to let them fill in the blanks. And the film’s more bizarre plot points never feel anything but grounded in the carefully curated reality Adamski creates and controls.

Eastern feels fresh and is surely a sign of exciting things to come from Adamski. It’s a genre-bending treat that doesn’t lose its subtlety and tension by lingering too long on the details.

Eastern will have its New York Premiere at BAM’s “Kino Polska: New Polish Cinema” Series. The film will be screened April 30th – May 6th on BAM’s virtual streaming platform.

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