After their 1981 collaboration on Gallipoli, Peter Weir cast the young Mel Gibson again the following year in his feature adaptation of the C.J. Koch novel The Year of Living Dangerously. The film would ultimately end up being one of the first collaborations between an Australian studio and a Hollywood studio, and thus the most ambitious Australian film to date. Good news for both the director and the actor, then, that the movie ended up being one of the year’s finest achievements. If Gallipoli was the announcement of Weir as a commanding big-budget filmmaker and Mel Gibson as a major star, The Year of Living Dangerously was the solidification of that announcement.
The storyline(s) are admittedly numerous, often incomplete, occasionally downright implausible. The historical accuracy isn’t necessarily…accurate. Yet none of that really matters in the grand scheme of Living Dangerously because the characters and the atmospheric beauty of the picture are so absorbingly irresistible, and because the meandering and multifaceted plot is probably actually more true to life. Lives don’t play out in neat one-two-three act scenarios, and the subplots each of us tends to engage in hardly ever come to definitive “ends”. Love comes and goes, things become more important or less, people we thought were one way act another – all of these expressions are at the heart of The Year of Living Dangerously, and the overall impact far outweighs that of a great number of films preaching straightforward plots and historical accuracy only to forget to leave some breathing room for a little passion.
The Year of Living Dangerously is absolutely drenched with passion, not only the obvious dedication of Peter Weir but the motivations and worldviews of the characters themselves. Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, Australian reporter newly arrived in Jakarta with a mind to make a name for himself as a foreign correspondent. One of his first friends and contacts is a dwarf photographer named Billy Kwan, played brilliantly by Linda Hunt. A male was originally cast in the role (go figure), but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Hunt in Billy’s shoes. Billy is integral to the film, steering the people he meets into one situation or another and assisting – some would say manipulating – Guy from the very moment the two meet. Billy is fascinated by people, himself a sort of outsider because of his dwarfism, and Guy presents a new and exciting challenge for him. The pair work together for some time – Guy reporting and Billy photographing – and their friendship grows as they come to understand the political climate of Jakarta.
Why should such a friendship take a turn for the worse? The beautiful Jill, another foreigner in Indonesia played by Sigourney Weaver, enters the picture, and Guy falls in love. Their meeting was of course engineered by Billy. Is it her presence that drives Guy and Billy to no longer see eye-to-eye? Maybe. The fact is that the things that are important to Guy and the things that are important to Billy are not always the same, whether we’re talking about Indonesian politics or global human nature. Billy is disappointed that Guy, at the end of the day, can only be driven into and out of a given number of situations. “Is it possible I was wrong about you?” Billy asks himself. Perhaps he forgets that it was that internal drive and dedication that he first respected in Guy, probably because it mirrors his own.
And besides, that question – along with the critical questions of whether or not The Year of Living Dangerously makes a coherent statement after you sift through all of the moving pieces – is neatly answered by Billy in the middle of the film. “In the West,” he says, “we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong, or good or bad…but no such final conclusion exists.” The atmosphere, the political and social mood, the passion – these are tougher to depict than the setting or the events of revolutionary Jakarta. Though he was preoccupied at times with these things, Billy knew the fact of there matter: it’s the people that are worth watching.