British embassy staffer Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) tells her new lover Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) that a Chinese ship is en route with arms for the Indonesian Communists. She wants him to leave before the country explodes in violence but Hamilton wants to stay, and use her information to confirm a major story. When Billy (Linda Hunt) learns about his betrayal of trust, he is disgusted. Hamilton sets out to confirm the story independently, in order to hide what everyone will guess – that she gave him the information. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
Linda Hunt won the 1983 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for portraying Billy Kwan, and became the first actress to win an Oscar for playing a man.
The film is partly about detachment, or perhaps disengagement. Hamilton is an observer, Kwan is a participant. Hamilton observes events, Kwan makes things happen – like the relationship between Guy and Jill. Kwan collects characters, like a puppet-master (note the wayang puppet drawings in his file on Hamilton); Guy collects facts, intelligence, without allowing himself to care. Jill betrays her employer to try to save his life, but he barely recognises her gesture. Indeed, he’s prepared to risk damaging her, or as Billy sees it, betraying her, for the sake of the story.
Guy Hamilton’s detachment from what is happening around him is perhaps a metaphor for the detachment of Western countries in general. Billy Kwan gets deeply involved with a woman in a slum, after her child dies. In the end he sacrifices himself for the sake of a protest against the Indonesian president, ‘Bung’ Sukarno. Hamilton barely comprehends the place he’s in, nor the people. He doesn’t feel it as Billy feels it. He can’t give enough of himself, either in work or in his personal relationships, according to Kwan’s analysis, tapped out on the typewriter.
The book was written in the context of a wider debate – taking in Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ‘70s – about Australia’s engagement with Asia and the rest of the world. Christopher Koch worked as a radio journalist with the ABC from 1962 to ’72, when he became a full-time writer. The novel was published in 1978, when relations between Australia and Indonesia were still very much strained by the Indonesian takeover of East Timor in October 1975.
As Indonesian political tensions come to a head in late 1965, Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives in Jakarta to report for the Australian Broadcasting Service on his first overseas posting. Without friends or contacts, he flounders until rescued by a small but well-connected Chinese-Australian cameraman, Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt, playing a man). Kwan sees great human potential in Hamilton. He grooms him, setting up exclusive interviews and engineering a romance with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a young assistant at the British embassy. Bryant warns Hamilton that a bloodbath is about to break out between right-wing factions and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Hamilton pursues the story, against her wishes. Billy Kwan, disheartened by all the people he once believed in, decides to make a public protest against President Sukarno. When violence breaks out, Hamilton is caught between his rampant ambition, his conscience and his feelings for Jill Bryant.
The Year of Living Dangerously, based on a novel by Christopher Koch, was Peter Weir’s last film about Australia, or his first film about the rest of the world, depending on how you look at it. He has not returned to make a film with Australian characters or location since, but this film is concerned partly with an Australian character finding his way in the world. It followed a year after Gallipoli (1981), which could be said to be about the same thing, in some senses. In each film, a young, inexperienced Australian (Mel Gibson stars in both films) discovers just how violent and dangerous the wider world can be. In this film, the character of Guy Hamilton also discovers his own ruthlessness, at great personal cost. Hamilton betrays both his greatest friend, the cameraman Billy Kwan, and his new lover, Jill Bryant (although the ending suggests that he has learned a lesson).
The film is unusually complex in its story, like the politics it was trying to describe. In 1965, Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, was losing control of a power struggle that he had manipulated for 20 years. On one side were the right-wing factions of the Indonesian army and its pro-Muslim supporters. They were opposed to the PKI, the third biggest Communist Party in the world in 1965, with three million members. The genocide that followed the events shown in the film has never been fully explained, or documented, but credible estimates have put the number of PKI sympathisers (and their families) killed as high as one million. The PKI head, DN Aidit, who’s mentioned in the film (as Hamilton’s first exclusive interview) was among those executed.
The depiction of the lead-up to these events, which saw General Suharto depose President Sukarno, is exceptionally gripping, despite severe production problems that arose during shooting in the Philippines. The production was forced to relocate to Sydney, where the film was finished by recreating a slum on the side of a canal in the inner-city suburb of Glebe. The film remained banned in Indonesia until late 2004, when it was screened on a private cable channel, with some scenes cut. Linda Hunt won an Oscar, best supporting actress, for her performance as Billy Kwan.
Notes by Paul Byrnes