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The Year of Living Dangerously

The first time Indonesian characters appeared in an Australian-made film was 1982, in a landmark movie, The Year of Living Dangerously directed by Peter Weir. Incidentally, 25 years passed until Indonesian characters again appeared in an Aussie-made movie, 2007’s Lucky Miles.

The Year of Living Dangerously is still a fascinating piece of work. The first Australian film to be financed by a major Hollywood studio, MGM/UA, its international success boosted Peter Weir’s directing career and he has since worked in Hollywood as Cynthia Webb reports.

The title may be familiar to older Indonesians, as it was the name given by President Sukarno, to the year 1965, during the time of “Konfrontasi” with Malaysia, which also turned out to be a time of confrontation for him.

The book of the same title, published in 1978, was written by Christopher J. Koch, an Australian author whose brother Philip, had worked as a news correspondent in Jakarta.
The author spent time there in 1968, and stayed in the Hotel Indonesia. His Highways to a War, published in 1995, again featured news correspondents in Asia, this time Vietnam and Cambodia during war-time.

The Year of Living Dangerously was banned in Indonesia until 1999, and at last screened in the country during the Jakarta International Film Festival in 2000.

On Sept. 28, 2004, the first TV screening of the film went to air in Indonesia, on Metro T.V. Around 2002 the book was released for sale and was introduced into the study syllabus at the University of Indonesia.

There is a scene in the film, showing a massacre of about eight civilians in the streets of Jakarta at the time of the coup, which according to the New Order government “could stain the image of Indonesia”.

The author stated during a radio discussion aired in Australia at the time of the 20th anniversary of the film, that this scene was actually incorrect, and he “took issue” with that scene.

However Peter Weir wanted to make reference to the tragic mass killings of civilians, which followed later, and this was his way of doing it.

This film is also memorable because it was the first time an actor ever won an Academy Award (in 1984) for playing a member of the opposite sex. The central character, enigmatic dwarf, Billy Kwan, was played by New York actress, Linda Hunt. How did this unusual situation arise?

During the early stages of filming, David Williamson, who adapted the book, was called in to work on the script, because Linda’s performance was so compelling, that Peter Weir wanted to expand the role, thereby Billy Kwan became the focal point of the movie. Now, it is difficult to imagine it any other way.

When Billy, the news photographer, meets Guy Hamilton, a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Service on his first overseas assignment, (played by a then-26-year-old Mel Gibson) he sees in him all that he would like to be.

Billy loves Jill (Sigourney Weaver) who works at the British Embassy. He has proposed to her, and been turned down, and they remain close friends.

Now Billy plays dalang (puppet master). He decides to give Jill to Guy — that they will be his Arjuna and Srikandi. He arranges for them to meet and offers the use of his bungalow.

Billy knows Indonesia. Billy cares. Billy idolizes Sukarno. Billy is a link between two worlds, because he is half Asian. In contrast, the other correspondents are living on a kind of expatriate island, epitomized by the Wayang Bar, (based on the real Ramayana Bar, once in the Hotel Indonesia) — the “only hotel in town with air conditioning”.

They have no feeling for the suffering of the nation. In the aftermath of the previous year’s famine, and Sukarno’s refusal of American aid, there is a rice shortage.

Sukarno at this time was ill, pre-occupied with his policy of confrontation with Malaysia, and building grand monuments around the city, and Billy’s admiration for him is turning sour as he sees the desperation around him.

Sukarno was seen as a dalang, balancing the forces of Left and Right. Billy too, behaves like a dalang, as he studies the people in the expatriate community, keeps files on them, cutting out the figures from photos to create puppet-like figures.

Billy is a highly intelligent, deep-feeling man, imprisoned in a child-sized body, and steeped in his study of the ancient Javanese shadow-puppet theater wayang.

He says to Guy Hamilton: “Look at the shadows, not at the puppets” — advice loaded with meaning in the year 1965.

Billy understands that one man cannot help everyone, so he asks: “What then must we do?” (a quote from the Bible, Luke 3:10, which was later used by Leo Tolstoy).

Billy’s answer is: “Do what you can. Help the people in front of you”. So he has adopted a poor woman, known only as “Ibu” who lives by a polluted canal, in poverty.

Billy assists her to support her child with gifts of money and rice, but the child becomes ill and dies. As the story progresses Guy too, betrays Billy’s faith in him.

Billy is devastated, and angry about these events, and his reaction leads to his death.

At the end of the film Guy Hamilton leaves Jakarta, blind in one eye after being hit in the head by a soldier, while attempting to access the Presidential Palace on 1st October, to get the scoop of his career.

This too is a metaphor for his inability to fully “see” Indonesia. Billy said at the beginning of their friendship: “I’ll be your eyes”, seemingly referring to his camerawork.

Guy has lost his friend, whom he now realizes he loved. Guy has also lost his chance to really understand. The injured Guy manages to join Jill on a flight out of Indonesia, leaving behind his office colleague Kumar, a PKI member, who almost certainly faces death.

A shot of Kumar watching the departing plane, was an alternative ending for the film, and would have been more powerful and accurate, but happy endings with the lovers in each other’s arms are preferred by Hollywood.

The movie could not be shot in Indonesia, so filming began in Manila, the Philippines. However, partway through shooting, death-threats were received by the film-crew, and although President Marcos begged them not to depart, and sent palace guards, a decision was made to leave the Philippines and continue in Sydney.

The Year of Living Dangerously could be some peoples’ only impression of Indonesia. The fascinating references to the Wayang, may have created a lot of interest, and the film’s effect may well have been more positive than negative, for Indonesia’s image.

Reading the many reviews which can be found online, it is noted that quite a few Western reviewers are somewhat disappointed by the lack of a fuller explanation of the political situation in Indonesia at that time.

This proves the film excited their interest however, author, Koch has stated that he never meant to make the socio/political situation any more than “a backdrop” for the personal dramas of his characters in the book, and the film was treated in the same way.