Monday, December 7, 2015

#1,939. The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Peter Weir

Starring: Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt

Tag line: "A Love Caught In The Fire Of Revolution"

Trivia: Filming in Manila was halted after three weeks due to death threats to the production. Reportedly, these were directed to both actor Mel Gibson and director Peter Weir. The threats alleged that the film being made was intended to be anti-Islam

Jakarta, 1965. Sukarno, the President of Indonesia, was at odds with the country’s communist party (the PKI) as well as the conservative Muslim military, resulting in not one, but two revolutions in September of that year. As you'd expect, there was lots of bloodshed. 

Yet as historically important as these events are, they're merely the backdrop for Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously, a drama in which three westerners are caught up in the chaos and, to a lesser extent, a romance about the love that blossoms between two of them.

As the movie opens, Australian news reporter Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is arriving in Indonesia for what will be his first overseas assignment. Highly motivated, Hamilton is anxious to break a big story right out of the gate. Unfortunately, the other western reporters, including American Pete Curtis (Michael Murphy) and fellow Australian Wally O’Sullivan (Noel Ferrier), have seniority over him, which means they land all the important interviews. 

Guy's luck improves, however, when he forms a partnership with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a Chinese-Australian photographer who seemingly knows everyone. It’s Billy who gets him an interview with the head of the country’s Communist Party, making Guy the envy of his peers. Before long, Guy is in the thick of things, rubbing elbows with Indonesia’s most powerful men.

It’s around this time that Billy also introduces Guy to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), who works at the British Embassy as an assistant to Colonel Henderson (Bill Kerr). Though she’s set to return to London in three weeks, Jill and Guy have a torrid affair, and are soon head-over-heels in love. 

But when Jill warns Guy that a shipment of arms, sent by the Chinese to the PKI, will be arriving shortly, and that he should get out of Indonesia, Guy instead decides to stick around and break the story, alienating both Jill and Billy in the process. To determine when and where this shipment will land, Guy visits the docks and bribes potential sources, all the while realizing such an explosive story could very well cost him his life.

Based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously doesn’t completely ignore the political upheaval of that period. In one key sequence, Billy and Guy are tipped off that the PKI is about to march on the American Embassy. Joined by their valet, Kumar (Bambol Roco), the two make their way through the crowded streets, only to be attacked by an angry mob. Even more dramatic is a later scene in which Guy and Kumar witness a mass execution. 

The movie’s main focus, however, is placed on the western reporters, most of whom experience the turmoil from a distance. As the ambitious Guy, Gibson delivers one of his finest early performances; and even though she often plays second fiddle to her male counterparts, Weaver is equally strong as Jill. She and Gibson generate some sparks in their scenes together.

But the heart and soul of The Year of Living Dangerously is the character of Billy Kwan, expertly portrayed by Linda Hunt (playing a man, and doing so wonderfully). Occasionally acting as the film’s narrator, Billy is a complex individual, a guy who is on a first-name basis with many of the country’s leaders, yet also visits the poorer sections of town, doing what he can to help a mother and her son, both of whom are slowly starving to death. When Guy tells Billy he should publish some of the photos he’s taken in these poverty-stricken areas, Billy says that it’s the content of the pictures, and not their commercial value, that interests him. Unlike Guy, Billy cannot ignore what’s happening in Indonesia, making him the film’s most fascinating character as well as it’s most sympathetic.

If you’re looking for a movie about the real-life horrors that rocked Indonesia during this tumultuous period, check out the recent documentary The Act of Killing, which focuses on the violence that erupted following the failed 1965 coup by the communist PKI. In the case of The Year of Living Dangerously, though, these events aren’t as important as the characters or their story, resulting in a motion picture that tells a smaller, more intimate tale which nonetheless resonates just as strongly as any Hollywood epic.

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