Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)
In one scene in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Nikolai (played masterfully by Viggo Mortensen) is standing naked, wearing only a pair of black boxers, in front of a group of old men, pointing and discussing the different tattoos that adorn Nikolai's body. It is the film's ultimate Cronenbergian moment, where the organic body is blurred to have a synthetic purpose and in that moment's case, the recording and retelling of Nikolai's life through the tattoos to the senior members of vor v zakone ("thief in law") before he is accepted to the exclusive brotherhood. The centuries-old practice of etching figures in the epidermis (like proto-men etching drawings of their daily lives in caves) serves less an aesthetic purpose here and more a functional or mechanical motive, quite similar to the vagina-shaped cavity in James Woods' abdomen that hides his firearm in Videodrome (1983), the wounds that elicit sexual satisfaction in Crash (1996), or the hideous scarring in Ed Harris' eye that foretells his moral positioning in A History of Violence (2005), among others.
When Nikolai is deemed worthy of the brotherhood, his skin is etched once more with the stars that represent his affiliation and rank. This represents his point of no return, the moment wherein he can no longer claim his moral ambivalence by declaring himself as mere chaffeur because now as the permanent stars on his chest and knees show, he is a ranking member of vor v zakone. In the film's most famous sequence, Nikolai is caught naked inside the sauna, the inked markings in his body revealing to his assassins what he is (Russian mob) and who he is purported to be (Kirill (Vincent Cassel), only son of the mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), which the latter saves from vengeful Chechens by turning Nikolai into bait). The bloody showdown between the two leather-jacketed killers and Nikolai may very well be remembered as example of Cronenberg's exercise in efficient directorial economics, where the editing is judicious, the cinematography is unflaunting yet purposeful, and the action choreography is astute and prudent, wisely foregoing of the cheap instancy of gunfights for the subliminal eroticism of knife-fighting. However, beneath this showing of Cronenberg's unquestionable directorial flair are the consequences of the lopsided sauna fight-off to the blurred parameters that frame Nikolai's ambivalent identity: Nikolai can no longer be blanketed the anonymity of undercover agent, yet he burrows himself deeper into the core of the Russian mob. The film's final frame (presumably after overthrowing Semyon as head of the mob, Nikolai is sitting in contemplative and punished mood with Kirill beside him) merely strengthens the notion of moral ambiguity that befell him after he is rewarded the certainty of identity when he finally becomes one with the vor v zakone.
While Nikolai is the obvious centerpiece of Eastern Promises, the characters around him are also enveloped with the same warped senses of identity and morality. Even Anna (too pleasantly portrayed by Naomi Watts that any depth of her character overpowered by the more sinister characters around her), the midwife whose supposed motivation in the film is to decipher the identity of Tatiana, the fourteen year old girl who dies while giving birth to her baby, from the diary she has left behind so that she can deliver her baby to the nearest of kin, is introduced a backstory that shrouds her personality with a hint of personal and possibly selfish motive --- to replace the baby lost with Tatiana's. In a way, Anna can be seen as a much tamer version of Nola Carveth from The Brood (1979); both go through extreme lengths (dedicated research for Anna, and a horde of cancerous humanoids that partake the appearance of her child for Nola) to fill their respective maternal voids.
Kirill's relationship with Nikolai alludes to many things. First, it contemplates a simple relational scenario of boss and employee, where Nikolai, as self-declared chauffeur succumbs to Kirill's several arbitrary requests, including a rather suspiciously motivated order to have Nikolai fuck one of the girls in the family's den of imported prostitutes. This immediately establishes that there is something beyond the professional relation that links the two, possibly one that hints of simple camaraderie, fraternal affection, and maybe and most probably, a homosexual attraction to the reserved yet unassumingly very sexual Nikolai. Cronenberg is careful not to make Kirill's homosexual tendencies obvious and apparent, instead he conceives Kirill as utterly troubled and divided: supposedly convinced that he is straight, in accordance with the necessity of continuing the familial machismo that is inherited from Russia, but internal and external factors pull him towards the fractured sexuality which Nikolai apparently exploits. Cronenberg never discloses whether the homosexual tension between Nikolai and Kirill become consummated but the atmosphere of ever-changing stances in identity overpowers, especially nearing the end of the film when Kirill finally breaks from his moral and sexual gray area and surrenders to Nikolai's moral and sexual ascendancy over him (as exemplified by the uncomfortably close embrace with Nikolai after deciding to turn over the baby to Anna) in the concrete banks of the Thames River.
Place and geography seem to play a very vital role in Cronenberg's examination of conflicted identities in several of his films. In M. Butterfly (1993), Cronenberg touched on the role of the exotic locale of colonial China to skew the supposed certain sexual identity of Jeremy Irons' character who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer who turns out to be a man. In Spider (2002), Ralph Fiennes' character's schizophrenic tendencies again ripen when he is transferred from the asylum to the halfway house. In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen's character's identity seems to be very well-entrenched within the locale that he associates himself with in such a way that when the memory of his former life in a different locality attempts to wake him up, he retaliates and once again assimilates an identity not different from his previous life.
In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg is again examining the role of geography in his theme of identity. When Semyon gains knowledge of his son's supposed homosexuality, he blames London as the primary cause for the sudden and alarming shift in gender preference within his family line. In one pertinent scene where Anna, her aunt and uncle, are discussing the diary of Tatiana over dinner, Anna berates her uncle regarding a grammatical error he made. In the same scene, Anna opts to have the diary translated since her knowledge of the Russian language is non-existent, despite the fact that her family is from Russia. Language becomes the apparent discrepancy and source of disconnect that the change in geography has resulted in. Cultural identity has fizzled into a near non-existence because of the deliberate emigration of Russians to England. Even the sentimental central point of the screenplay (written by Steven Knight, scribe of Steven Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002), a film which also discusses the plight of an immigrant in England) of underage Russian girls being transported to England for prostitution is overpowered by this suggestion of Cronenberg of a deterioration and corruption of identity (physical, moral, sexual and cultural) through geographical dislocation.
Many have regarded Eastern Promises as inferior to its supposed companion piece, A History of Violence. I disagree. Although Knight's screenplay is oftentimes problematic in its blatancy in forwarding its melodramatic motivations, Cronenberg successfully floats an atmosphere of fleeting then freezing fractured identities which the characters dolorously inhabit. A History of Violence successfully details the conflicts that arise when a morally assured man suddenly discovers a forgotten past that is inconsistent with his present life. Eastern Promises follows the same thematic course that Cronenberg seems bent on pursuing and takes it a step further, forwarding characters with issues that overflow past relational, generational and geographic borders.