Ambitious, stylish, and ideologically confused, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY falters in its attempts to succeed simultaneously as thriller, romance, and political tract, while also encompassing director Peter Weir's penchant for half-baked mysticism. Still, it's a gripping film, set in
1965 as Australian reporter Guy Hamilton (Gibson) arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia. His photographer, Billy Kwan (Hunt), a Chinese-Australian, shows him the ropes, introducing him to the city's poverty and corruption and to various contacts, including Jill Bryant (Weaver), an embassy attache with
whom Guy begins a romance. When Jill secures information on a planned Communist coup against President Sukarno and urges Guy to leave, he betrays her confidence and files a major story--for which she is the obvious source. Billy, previously a fence-sitter, now comes out against Sukarno, feeling
that he has betrayed Indonesia in much the same way as Guy betrayed Jill (whom Billy also loves). Revolt and reaction explode on all sides.
Weir is only partly successful in attempting to link his various themes symbolically with reflexive images of Indonesian shadow puppetry and Billy's advice to "look at the shadows, not at the puppets," but the director indisputably made the right move in his risky casting of the tiny,
gravel-voiced Hunt to play Billy Kwan. Physically convincing in the role, Hunt's achievement is not merely cosmetic; her Billy negotiates among a compelling range of motivations and emotions. Gibson and Weaver, too, enjoy two of their few interesting roles to date, and respond to the challenges
put them with intensity and intelligence. The film's hot, humid, seedy ambience is nearly palpable, enhancing this fascinating story of Sukarno's downfall.
Unfortunately, the film's politics are puerile--Weir appears to endorse Kwan's smug rejection of social reform in favor of individual charity--and its historical material is sketchy and misleading. Viewers not already familiar with the events of 1965 in Indonesia will come away no wiser; in
particular, they will not learn that the "Communist coup" was an invented cover story for a CIA-engineered military coup against Sukarno that led to one of the bloodiest massacres of the post-war era (according to most estimates, some 500,000 alleged Communists and Sukarno supporters were
slaughtered in the space of a few weeks). Considered purely as a romantic adventure, the film mightn't need come to grips with such unpleasant realities, but it desperately wants to be taken seriously. Taken seriously, it largely fails.
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