From 1981 (Gallipoli) to 2003 (Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World), Australia’s Peter Weir gave us a twelve-year streak of films that were not only great, but projects of amazing diversity unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Hot off the success of his now-classic anti-war epic, Weir took on the adaptation of Christopher Koch’s potboiler about a collision between romance, journalistic obligation and revolution, The Year of Living Dangerously, which would become his last purely Australian effort.
Also on board was Mel Gibson, who had just begun to receive overseas recognition for Gallipoli, and Sigourney Weaver, whose only work of note to that point was Eyewitness and a little thriller called Alien. Guy (Gibson) plays a wet-behind-the-ears journalist who is developing his professional chops under seriously threatening turmoil in Sukarno’s Indonesian dictatorship. He is introduced to a British Embassy employee, Jill (Weaver), who is planning on getting out of the country while she is still able, due to the impending social breakdown and possible revolution. They fall for each other – and who wouldn’t? Pre-Hollywood Mel Gibson was a most promising acting talent and criminally good-looking. Weaver came from the stage and was already displaying a toughness behind the beauty that would become her trademark in a career loaded with strong female roles.
However, the heart and soul of the film belongs to Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, a male dwarf of Chinese extraction living in Jakarta who works as a photographer and arranges contacts for journalists wanting to report on all of the factions that are about to clash. Hunt’s astonishing performance steals the attention away from her glamorous costars and she simply walks away with the film. Not only is the character of Billy the person upon whom Guy relies for information and tips, he becomes the moral compass for the audience, as well. Just as Guy does, we see the troubled country and the collateral damage inflicted on its people through Billy’s eyes, all the pain, fear and frustration of watching one’s home country falling apart and turning upon itself, and the impact that has on its citizens. Here is a short clip of Billy (Hunt) introducing Guy (Gibson) to all of the elements at play in the country through a medium unique to Indonesia – shadow puppets.
It is also through Billy’s eyes that we are introduced to the frat pack mentality of the foreign correspondent lifestyle, carousing as they wait (and pray) for something newsworthy to happen. Weir wisely avoids the clichéd POV of the objective and noble witness to one of discovery in the midst a romantic involvement and personal friendship – one constantly feels that there is something important about to be lost at any given moment, and its this personal investment that holds our attention to the breath-holding finale. At play, as well, is crucial information that is vital to Guy’s objective to report the whole story, but the release of which would imperil the source, making it a very personal and deadly risk for all involved.
The production, heavily funded in by MGM/UA, likely in return for Weir’s future commitments, was the most ambitious Australian film to date, and every cent shows on the screen. The lush countryside and the stifling city heat alternate as set pieces where both the romance and the political maneuvering interact. Needless to say, there is lots of sweat, both suspense and pheromone-induced.
Composer Maurice Jarre aces the soundtrack score that recognizes all of the ethnicities at play in the film, and top-drawer production values give us an insight into 1965 Jakarta, despite the fact that the production team was barred from Indonesia due to typical dictatorship paranoia. Some filming was done in the Philippines, but when the director and cast began receiving death threats from factions who believed the film would be anti-Islam, the team completed the film in Australia. Just as the story portrayed in the film revolves around the moral dilemma to be overcome to complete a job while under constant threat, so did completing the production suffer a similar circumstance.
Although it was released in Australia 1982, the film played in international wide-release in 1983, making it – to me, anyway – a 1983 film for most audiences. Unfortunately, that wide release occurred in February, usually a dumping ground for minor films – by the time awards season rolled around with an unusually embarrassing Oscar-bait fare that each had Hollywood studio marketing behind them, The Year of Living Dangerously was lost in the dust. The single exception was Linda Hunt, who went on to become the first person to win an Oscar for playing cross-gender and cross-race. The film could not be shown in Indonesia until 1999, after the last dictator, Suharto, had at last been tossed.
The Year of Living Dangerouslyis the film that launched Peter Weir’s international career and a string of remarkably original work, resulting in Witness, Fearless, The Truman Show, Mosquito Coast, and Dead Poets Society.It was the film that made Hollywood seduce Mel Gibson into the Hollywood machine, eventually turning him from innocent Adonis into a megastar, powerbroker and, eventually, tabloid fodder. And was an initial steppingstone for Sigourney Weaver’s transformation of the typical damsel-in-distress roles into intelligent and courageous players. Mostly, though, it’s the film that gave us, for the first time, a performance by a classically trained actor – Linda Hunt – that reached beyond the limitations of gender, race and accepted onscreen physicality.
As Billy Kwan says, “Here, on the quiet page, I am the Master.”