I watched this movie again for the first time since it came out over thirty years ago. When I first saw it, I was swept away by the romance and the tension of the political situation, and the bald ambition of the journalist played by Mel Gibson.
Now that I am thirty years older, I look at the young lovers with affection, but I do not relate to them. Billy Kwan is everything in this movie.
It is his tragedy that is the center of the story. He is trusting, kind, and generous. He knows how to get things done. It is perfect that he is a photographer since it is his job to see, and he sees people for what they are, corruptible, promising, disappointing.
There are so few movies about political conflict that get it right. This is one of those movies. Told from the point of view of someone covering the story, the story itself, the upheaval in Indonesia during Sukarno’s last days, is confusing, as it should be. It is full of tension and menace and venal side characters getting in the way of the major characters. Sort of like Casablanca. You think of Rick, played by Bogart,who must kowtow to the Vichy supervisor, Captain Louis, played by Claude Rains. Rick is in love with Ilsa, who is pledged to another more heroic figure.
In The Year of Living Dangerously, Mel Gibson feels like the low man on the totem pole compared to all of the other journalists who have been in Indonesia much longer. The press pool is like the Vichy government in Casablanca, getting in the way of his career. Sigourney Weaver, playing a British attache who has recently lost a superior lover, is sort of like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, all noble and unattainable. Gibson must prove himself in this backwater and who comes to his aid but a dwarf, Billy Kwan, a man small in stature but gigantic in influence and gravitas. Billy’s philosophy gives soul to the movie. Even though the actual political events are not clearly shown, when the movie was made, in 1982, Indonesia was still ruled by Suharto, and the aftermath of his ascendancy to power was not known yet. The movie hints at it, and the hint is enough to let the view know how huge and catastrophic it will be.
Besides the claustrophobic cinematography, and the excellent mood music, there are supporting characters, perfectly cast, and beautifully played, like Bembol Roco who plays Guy’s driver, another native essential for his inside information. Who can forget the beautiful woman who sings the Marseillaise when the Nazi soldiers appear in Rick’s bar? Indonesians during the mid 1960s were passionately devoted to their country, and this driver is one of them.
There are people in Guy’s office who are stunning to look at and unforgettable, like a fever dream, of a time when to aspire to something as a journalist was to want to go to Vietnam.