It’s a peculiar delight to revisit Peter Weir’s chronically-underrated 1982 romantic drama, as it’s the kind of film they don’t make anymore, for better and for worse.
It’s a peculiar delight to revisit Peter Weir’s chronically-underrated 1982 romantic drama, as it’s the kind of film they don’t make anymore, for better and for worse. Starring then-new superstars Sigourney Weaver (in the second film after her breakout in Alien) and Mel Gibson (fresh from two Mad Max films), The Year of Living Dangerously follows Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Gibson) and English diplomat Jill Bryant (Weaver) as they navigate political intrigue in Jakarta during the attempted coup in 1965.
While its stars had already ascended, though Gibson wouldn’t make a film in America until 1984, The Year of Living Dangerously was a breakout for Australian co-writer and director Weir, who would go on to make the Harrison Ford Amish thriller Witness, masculine teen angst classic Dead Poets Society, the media-skewering delight The Truman Show and the best naval movie of the past 20 years, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, among others. Up until that point, Weir had been a key figure in Australian New Wave cinema, but outside of some international attention for 1981’s Gibson-starring Galipoli he had yet to garner much overseas attention.
This film’s success largely hinges on its poise. Weir, obviously a fan of Casablanca, introduces us to Indonesia’s fraught political landscape through two astonishingly beautiful leads with great chemistry. Weaver and Gibson charm us and each other with their coy smiles, midnight trysts and rain-splashed interludes, and it’s so old Hollywood that you expect the MGM lion to jump out of the lush Indonesian jungle at any moment.
The more nuanced elements of the story are revealed through the strong supporting cast, particularly Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, a local photographer who’s Hamilton’s guide into the more dangerous parts of Jakarta. Hunt won an Academy Award for her performance, and deservedly so, as Billy is the authentic heart of the movie. While Guy and Jill’s romance has us swooning, Billy’s push for the truth has us biting our nails.
The fact that Hunt is playing a man may seem gimmicky in retrospect, but the gender-blind casting worked beautifully and it is still cool today to see a woman given a role that would have traditionally gone to a man. Billy could have easily been rewritten as a woman, but having a woman play him raises all sorts of wonderful questions about who should get what parts. If writers and directors are so hesitant to tell female stories, even today, then why shouldn’t we at least cast women in some of the roles, particularly when they’re able to play men so believably? Seeing Hunt as Billy requires hardly any suspension of disbelief, even today, when Hunt has gone on to have many intriguing and well-known roles as a woman.
The more problematic aspect of Billy Kwan is that he’s Asian, and Hunt’s black hair and painted skin are strange example of yellowface. While keeping Billy’s character a man challenges power dynamics, all of that goodwill is nearly undone by Hunt’s yellowfacing doing the opposite. Here’s a white person playing a role that could have and should have been played by an Asian person. And though Hunt is careful not to slip into caricature, it is impossible not to look at her and think of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and other racist portrayals of Asians by white people. Little fault should fall on Hunt – how many big roles were women of her diminutive stature going to be offered in these kind of epic films? But it’s clearly a miss, regardless of how acclaimed the role was, and it’s an aspect of the film that hasn’t aged well.
This leads directly into the other key narrative problem, which is that we’re watching two privileged white people “suffer” through an international conflict that was far worse for the people whose lives were truly upended and lost during it. As compelling as they are, there is no reason for Weaver and Gibson to have to be our eyes and ears to the 30 September Movement. The story would have been more authentic and just as powerful, if not more, if told with Indonesian characters.
Still, when viewed as a product of its time, The Year of Living Dangerously has much to offer, primarily for its stunning cinematography and the sparks between Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson at a time when their star power was burning brightest. The sheer amount of talent on display is something that time cannot erode, and even the ill-considered casting and storytelling don’t conceal the film’s ample rewards.