The Philippines. 1981. An Australian film crew arrives to shoot an adaptation of Christopher Koch’s bestselling novel, The Year of Living Dangerously—a sweeping tale of love and obsession set amidst the Indonesian massacres of 1965, led by the brutal dictatorship of President Sukarno.
Filming in Indonesia was already out of the question. Director Peter Weir had been warned that not only would his crew be refused, but back channel enquiries alluded to more sinister consequences. “Former president Sukarno was still a sacred memory [over a decade on],” Weir tells me, looking back on the making of the film. “There was suspicion around our motives. So, I went to Malaysia and Borneo looking for substitute locations, but it was in the Philippines I found what I was looking for. The Muslim Quarter in Manila was to be our Jakarta.”
Before long, Weir was feeling the heat in Jakarta too. Death threats from the Islamic community had shaken his team, with some targeting the film’s young stars, the American-Australian Mel Gibson, of Mad Max fame, and Sigourney Weaver. “The threats began halfway through shooting,” Weir adds. “At first, notes were left in film vehicles, reading: IN THE NAME OF ALLAH THE ALMIGHTY, STOP YOUR IMPERIALISTIC FILM OR WE WILL STOP YOU.”
Then the anonymous phone calls started. The government, and more specifically the wife of then-president Ferdinand Marcos, urged Peter and his crew to continue and ignore the threats: “She was in the midst of building a huge cultural centre, and offered us the Presidential Guard to surround the set,” he explains, “but that was no way for showbiz folk to work. I pulled the unit out.” With footage from South-East Asia, Weir and his team returned to complete filming in Australia. “We successfully re-created a number of sets, including the kampong by a canal in a Sydney city park. It was populated by recently-arrived Vietnamese refugees.” After his very own Year of Living Dangerously, Weir had found Jakarta in the most unexpected of places.
It has been over forty-years since the film’s release, but its approach to foreign revolution has lost none of its nuance. In 2000, there was finally a lift on its ban in Indonesia following the forced-resignation of coup-leader Suharto in 1998, and Weir still receives the odd Indonesian thank you note from time-to-time.
For Western audiences, with little recollection or attachment to the Sukarno-era of Indonesia, The Year of Living Dangerously is an epic, exotic romance that is perhaps one of the director’s most overlooked films in his eclectic body-of-work. You can list The Truman Show, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, Gallipoli, and Dead Poets Society as modern classics, but rarely is The Year of Living Dangerously counted among them. And yet, in its masterful construction of a foreign atmosphere, and a love among the ruins (to quote Browning here) that feels real and soulful, it deserves to be. Weir himself has a special soft spot for the film—not least because it resonates with his own adventurous spirit: “In my case, I sailed for Europe at twenty and never looked back!” He tells me, “Aussies are good travellers.”
Those who adore it are in great company. On its release, the critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review that it achieved “the best recreations of an exotic locale I have ever seen in a movie” by plunging headfirst into the middle of the action—into its world of expatriates, journalists, and embassy people who wait with baited breath at the same bars and restaurants for a semblance of action to go on. We follow an Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton (Gibson) who falls in love with a British embassy officer (Weaver), while reporting the political unrest with his photographer contact, the enigmatic dwarf Billy Kwan. Naturally, trouble ensues.
Weir’s interest in adapting the story began in the seventies, after having spent some time in Bali himself. Settling down to read Koch’s book in 1979, he found himself moved by the vivid description of the senses that linger even after a traveller has returned home from the East. “I could smell the sate, the tang of clove cigarettes, the distant sound of the gamelan,” he recollects. “This exotic Javanese atmosphere framed not just a love story, but a story about love set against a backdrop of political turmoil. I finished the book at midnight. I didn’t know Christopher, but had his phone number. I decided to chance it.” Koch picked up the phone that evening. “He was delighted when I asked to take out an option!”
With a script soon prepared, Weir set about casting the character of Guy Hamilton, a naive, brash—but honourable and endearing—Australian reporter who seeks a story at any cost, often at the risk of his life. After seeing Mel Gibson burst on the screen at a 1979 preview of George Miller’s Mad Max, he offered the young actor a role in Gallipoli (today, among the most emblematic Australian pictures). The Year of Living Dangerously followed soon after. “Initially Mel was wary of the part of Guy,” he remarks, “I think it was that he’d never played a character like that: cool, detached—a certain kind of masculinity becoming rarer on screen even then.” For anyone who watched the film in 1982, it was inevitable that Gibson’s charisma would bring him to Hollywood the following year.
But the most famous, and perhaps controversial, role was that of Billy Kwan, played by the actress Linda Hunt. The half-Australian, half-Chinese dwarf is our moral standard throughout the story, becoming a philosophical guide to the newly-arrived Hamilton; and a figure of suffering and stoicism who finds himself caught up in the tragedies of the massacres, as well as the expectations he sets on Hamilton as a man and as a friend. “[When it came to the script], The character of Billy Kwan was the key,” Weir admits, “I knew I had to get him right.”
Pre-production had begun. The film was cast, and rehearsals arranged, as sets were being built in Manila. But something was off. “To my extreme unease, the rehearsals with Mel and the young actor I cast as Billy Kwan were not going well. Both actors felt it. I tried re-writes, improvisations…nothing worked.” Gibson’s character was meant to find Kwan intriguing, “But he found him ‘irritating’ and I had no alternative but to re-cast.” Dozens of actors auditioned, including Wallace Shawn and Bob Balaban. “Mel was in Manila, so I read his lines and felt what he complained of: this little man was irritating. Then in came Linda Hunt. It was kind of a mistake, but she was curious, and I asked her to read with me.” Everything changed. “Doing the scenes I found this Billy fascinating. She understood the pain and anger inside of him.” Besides the clear ethnic differences, Hunt—then a New York stage-actor—would have to convince the audience that the character she was portraying was male: “Could she play a man? Do we dare risk it all? We did, and with full make-up for the screentest, the studio bought it.” Weir’s instincts were correct. Hunt would go on to earn an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress—the first actor in history to win an Academy Award for a character of the opposite sex.
What is most striking about the portrayal is how this sexual ambiguity suits the Javanese magic-realism that permeates the film. While Gibson plays Hamilton as a conservative, irreligious figure, Hunt’s Kwan is his spiritual opposite—perceiving their work as storytellers as more than an earthly occupation. He invites the third dimension to The Year of Living Dangerously, reciting the Bhagavad Gita or describing spirits that lurk outside his small home, which is sometimes lit in a translucent yellow and is decorated with small shrines and portraits. Although on the surface the story revolves around Guy’s actions as the archetypal leading man, it is Billy Kwan who instigates the good that happens to Guy throughout the film: from his work as a reporter, to his romance with Weaver’s Jill Bryant, and his friendships with embassy officials and the press. But when Hamilton shows flashes of predictable humanity (and greed), in one of their final encounters Kwan transforms into a karmic judge—proving just as capable of taking away as he is of giving. Their dynamic is alluded to in one of the film’s most moving segments, where Kwan employs Indonesian shadow puppets, like a flickering theatre of myth, to instruct Hamilton on his role as ‘the servant’ in his life.
“The shadow puppets of Indonesia, the wayang, was a natural metaphor for Billy Kwan to borrow to describe the characters and their relationships within his world—a puppet for each of them, including him and Guy,” Weir explains. “It is a great scene in the book, and it is even greater if you’ve been lucky enough one night to be in the audience in a Javanese village.”
There is an Indonesian phrase in the film that translates to ‘water from the moon.’ It is used to imply that which is unattainable; that which one can never have nor know. Peter Weir’s oeuvre, being so varied in genre and scope, feels like an artist searching for an experience he doesn’t yet have or know.
This has never been a conscious decision. Weir has never settled for a style or a genre—embarking on unknown journeys across the uncharted range of stories a filmmaker is able to indulge in their lifetime. “I like to think of myself as a storyteller moving from court to court, film to film, looking no further ahead than the story I was working on,” he explains. But this film would become the exception; steering Weir into his next big chapter. “After The Year of Living Dangerously I was ready for fresh landscapes,” he says, “America beckoned.”
What happened next was prolific (Weir’s following film would be the Harrison Ford-led CIA-thriller Witness). But this remains one of his most intriguing works, almost half-a-century on. It confirmed Mel Gibson as a Hollywood star; broke new boundaries with Linda Hunt’s performance; included a painfully evocative Vangelis score; and revived the sweeping, but near-extinct, romance of films like Casablanca. It could fairly be described as a cult movie: underwatched, rarely written about, crying for a new restoration, and yet deeply, passionately adored by those who have felt themselves drawn into the smoky bars, cluttered bungalows, canal slums, rice fields and embassy buildings that Weir conjures through his camera. “I’m delighted the film touched you as the book did me,” he says, after I admit that The Year of Living Dangerously is among my favourite films. “I’m not sure about its legacy,” Weir adds. “But it’s great that the film is out on the Cloud. In the pre-internet era, I’d be lucky if it made the mid-day movie every ten years.”