The Year of Living Dangerously

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May 11, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

The titular year is 1965, the final year of Maoist-styled-dictator Sukarno’s unimpeded reign over Indonesia. Guy Hoffman (Mel Gibson) is a young Aussie journalist arriving in Jakarta on the eve of the ’30 September Movement’ coup attempt. Guy’s predecessor is so eager to leave Indonesia that he doesn’t acquaint Guy with his local contacts, but Guy goes nonetheless, like any good film loner, hoping to “bluff his way through”. Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a half-Chinese, half-pint photographer, takes a keen interest in the neophyte and hopes to acquaint him with the environs and possibly become his new partner. Billy introduces Guy to the sultry Jillian (Sigourney Weaver), an officer at the British Embassy, who quickly promulgates a fling.

Peter Weir’s adaptation of C.J. Koch’s popular novel is a tempest of politics, rebellion and romantic intrigue, where time and space are tantamount considerations in a work that seeks the universe. Weir again utilizes the photographic talents of Russell Boyd whose work is consistently mesmerizing. Though the film was primarily shot in the Philippines, Boyd’s camera probes the streets and slums, the river lean-tos and graceful estates with awe as if it were Jakarta. Maurice Jarre’s score is no less enchanting. These combined talents make for a riveting drama and a romantic exodus by our lovers—Gibson and Weaver have a natural chemistry in this film, and their rebellious romp through dangerous territories lives up to its promise. But the film is every bit as heart-rending as it is romantic.

Billy Kwan is the film’s conscience, an altruist who puts himself at risk to help those who can’t help themselves, and speaks for them likewise. Initially praising Sukarno’s government, he comes to loathe it for its circumspect rationing and subsequent neglect of the food shortages causing starvation and upheaval. Billy desperately wants to photograph the turmoil, and he needs Guy to provide him a context. We learn that Guy is in Jakarta primarily because of a sensation piece he did on poverty, a report which Jill found “melodramatic”. Billy tells Guy a parable penned by Dostoyevsky as a sort of litmus test, for he hopes Guy shares his feelings on social action and is willing to be his counterpart. But we get to know Guy better than that. He probably exaggerated that star-making article—not because he believed in it, but because it suited his career at the moment.

At the apex of the love affair, Jillian tells Guy why she’s leaving the country shortly. She has knowledge of an arms shipment scheduled to arrive in a few days, from the Chinese to the PKI (the Communist Party of Indonesia), the ostensible perpetrators of the coup (although, in real life, it later came to light that the coup was entirely an internal Army one, intended to preserve Sukarno’s power). She tells Guy in order to protect him, so that he’ll leave with her and get out of harm’s way. Jakarta will not be a friendly place to foreigners once violence erupts. Instead, Guy sees this as the big story he’s been looking for, and he doesn’t care if it puts him in danger or compromises Jill’s status at the Embassy.

Guy is a likable jerk from start to finish, never maturing or reconciling himself with those he damages, yet his charms make it all too easy to root for him. He puts himself and his driver at unnecessary risk by attempting to approach a military-controlled palace for an interview with one of Sukarno’s subordinates, which results in the bludgeoning of his left eye. When the coup collapses and Guy partially recovers, he convinces his loyal guide, who is PKI and thus at risk no matter where he travels, to drive him to the airport to catch the last plane out of Jakarta. While Guy plays the opportunistic observer, Billy is an active manipulator of events; he keeps a myriad of files on the people he cares about in order to be an agent of change while Guy simply records misery and takes a check. Guy and his fellow journalists represent the old imperialists, the exploiters of grief, characteristics Billy comes to associate with Sukarno as well. In a selfless and haphazardous move toward the end of the film, Billy attempts to wave a banner from a hotel room that says “Sukarno, Feed Your People” as the president’s motorcade approaches.

In a film that is mostly remembered for Linda Hunt’s incredible turn as the male co-star, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, there are quite a number of other things that recommend it including, but not limited to, Peter Weir’s deft editing and his creation of credible atmospherics. He and Boyd successfully convey a nation’s moment of turmoil and trepidation, a time of danger in a place of contingency.

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