‘The East’ Review: Imperialist Blues

At the tail-end of World War II, an armed conflict broke out that is known today as the Indonesian War of Independence. The Dutch, after having lost their former colony to the Japanese in 1942, regrouped and deployed forces to reconquer the archipelago in 1946. Naturally, Indonesian nationalists were having none of it. And perhaps even more predictably, the Dutch Army responded with a violent campaign.

“The East,” a bloated and thoroughly generic war movie by the Dutch filmmaker Jim Taihuttu, reckons with the Netherlands’ colonial legacy by spotlighting this overlooked moment in history. The details may be novel — even eye-opening for some — but this story of white guilt and brutality feels mighty old.

For one thing, Johan (Martijn Lakemeier), a young, idealistic soldier, disillusioned by the impotence of Dutch efforts to fend off rebel forces, quickly acquires a taste for blood. A volunteer recruit hoping to make spiritual amends for the sins of his Nazi-collaborator father, he is initially the most polite and benevolent of his group of juvenile, sex-obsessed troopers. The good boy goes bad, however, when he meets Raymond “The Turk” (Marwan Kenzari), a mustachioed brute known for his merciless tactics. Cue the firing squad, terrorized villagers, and shame-fueled inner torment.

The jumbled script straddles two timelines: the events in Indonesia and Johan’s return to the Netherlands after completing his service. It’s all bleakness and self-loathing without the momentum or punch. Neither a joyless, immersive thrill ride (“1917”) nor a cartoonish display of tough-guy patriotism (“Midway”), “The East” fits squarely into the tradition of Vietnam War movies like “Platoon,” whose depictions of imperial carnage and psychic derangement might have once been provocative. Today, a film like “The East” feels more like a numbing recapitulation.

The East
Not rated. Running time: 2 hour 17 minutes. In Japanese, Dutch and Indonesian with subtitles. In theaters.

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