Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

Film Review: The Year of Living Dangerously

Chopstick Cinema

Indonesia is a vast South Pacific archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, with a long, complex indigenous and colonial history. Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, and occupied by the Japanese during World War II while the Netherlands were under German control. However, in the two decades following the war, the Indonesian people struggled for power against the Dutch, who had retained control over the western half of New Guinea. The Year of Living Dangerously showcases a small yet pivotal segment of 20th century Indonesian history: the regime of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

By the time we meet Mel Gibson as Australian newspaper reporter Guy Hamilton, Sukarno’s reign is already established. However, there is now a civil war brewing, with the division of the military into left and right wing forces, as well as growing unrest among Indonesia’s impoverished masses, who support the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

Enter Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Indonesian dwarf, who works as a freelance photographer with connections in high places. A male character played by Linda Hunt, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this role, Billy Kwan knows a good thing when he sees it. On Guy Hamilton’s first day in Jakarta, Kwan strikes a deal to become his eyes, his lens, his window into the powder keg of Indonesian politics.

Kwan also plays a devious and self-serving cupid to Guy Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver as British Embassy liaison Jill Bryant, whose pillow talk eventually reveals crucial classified information. First and always a reporter, Hamilton cannot resist the temptation to use her indiscretions to his advantage, a duplicitous and dangerous decision that helped shape Indonesian history.

Directed by Peter Weir in 1982, The Year of Living Dangerously is a compelling political drama that holds up remarkably well after more than two decades. And amid a maelstrom of political turmoil, Billy Kwan emerges as one of cinema’s most memorable characters. A deeply-flawed yet devoted martyr, wholly and relentlessly dedicated in his mission to further the cause for humanity in his own humble way.