Saturday, September 29, 2012

Movie – The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

The title “The Year of Living Dangerously” refers to the time period and location that the movie takes place in.  It is 1965 in Indonesia – the year that the dictator Sukarno faced a coup d’etat.  He crushed any opposition, and even worked to drive out any foreigner who was caught in the country.  Imagine, then, the peril that foreign journalists were in trying to cover these events for their home countries.  This concept was an influential one and several other films about reporters in war zones soon followed (i.e. The Killing Fields, Salvador, etc.)

Starring in this film is a young Mel Gibson, fresh off his first success in America in The Road Warrior.  He plays Guy Hamilton, an Australian journalist there to cover the events in Indonesia.  Co-starring with him is a young Sigourney Weaver, fresh off her star making turn in Alien.  She is Jill Bryant, an attaché in the British foreign office who is not at all affiliated with MI-6 (wink wink).  The key supporting role is played by newcomer Linda Hunt as a Eurasian male dwarf named Billy Kwan.

It’s easy to see why Hunt won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  Not only is she playing someone of another gender and another race, but she is also playing by far the most complex character in the film.  Billy seems to have a hand in everything that is going on in Jakarta.  He takes a liking to Guy and in exchange for being the photographer on his stories Billy connects Guy with some key interview subjects.  This allows Guy to scoop his more experienced rivals.

Billy also sees himself as a bit of a kingmaker, or “loyal servant to the prince”.  He decides Guy is that man to tie himself to. (Pay attention to an important story Billy tells Guy early on about a dwarf.)  He also decides to play matchmaker with Guy and another person he likes – Jill.  Everything is going according to Billy’s plan; Guy and Billy are getting the stories and Guy and Jill start a romance.  There are far larger things going on, though, and one of them is the crappy way that the dictator Sukarno treats his citizens.  This leads to an attempt to overthrow him and all hell breaks lose in Jakarta.

Both Gibson and Weaver do decent jobs in this film.  Weaver seems to have some trouble maintaining her accent.  As I mentioned earlier, though, Hunt is the one who really shines in this film.  I should answer the question on whether she believably played a man.  The answer for me was no, but with a strong caveat.  I know Hunt well from many other roles.  I’ve been watching her for decades in everything from Dune (1984) to David E. Kelley’s TV shows, so I believe it was just impossible for me to watch the character and not see Linda Hunt, a woman, there.  I’m almost positive that if I had seen this film in 1982 when it came out, not knowing Linda Hunt from Adam, I would not have known that the person playing that character was a woman.

As for the racial aspect, they did not attempt to make her look more Asian via makeup.  They just had her in a short hairstyle common for men at the time, and with black hair.  The character is only half-Chinese – the other half is Australian – so much like Jennifer Jones in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, the explanation is that the European stock is dominant over the Asian stock in regards to the character’s facial features.

Why not get an Asian actor to play the role?  First, people had not gone batshit crazy with political correctness yet, so it wasn’t as big a deal back then.  Second, director Peter Weir couldn’t find any man to play the role, let alone an Asian one.  He didn’t set out to cast a woman to play a man; he ended up there after exhausting all other possible casting choices right up to the start of filming.  And with Hunt being short even for a woman, she was easily the height a male dwarf would be, so no tricks with filming angles would be needed when she was onscreen together with the other characters.

Speaking of living dangerously, this production was first planned for Indonesia, but Suharto – the dictator that took over after Sukarno – refused to let them film there.  In fact, the film was banned in the country until 1999 when Suharto was finally forced from power.  Weir then moved production to the Philippines, but after Muslims there issued death threats to the cast and crew on the mistaken belief that the film was going to be anti-Muslim, Weir finally gave up and moved the production to his home country of Australia.

By the way, even though this film features real historical events and is based on the novel of the same name by C.J. Koch, whose brother was a reporter in Indonesia, the characters and story are fictional.  (Think Jack and Rose in Titanic – sinking real, characters not).

I don’t often notice the score in a film.  It usually has to be really great or really out of place for me to pick up on it.  Unfortunately, in the case of The Year of Living Dangerously, it was the latter.  Vangelis (he of Chariots of Fire fame) did the score.  As standalone music I’m sure it is quite good, but it just felt completely out of place with the location and events in the film.  This is my only real complaint with the film, though.

People may want to see this movie to judge for themselves how good a job Hunt did with playing the other gender.  Others might want to watch it to see both Gibson and Weaver early in their careers.  For everyone else, if it sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I've never been a fan of Mel Gibson, and overall, this movie doesn't sound like my cup of tea. Excellent review, though!

    1. Thanks. Hopefully some of the others will sound more your style (although this category pretty much calls out for out of the norm films.)

  2. I remember watching this back in the day. My mom forced me to watch it because of Linda Hunt specifically. Turns out, I liked it about as well as you did, although I haven't seen it in years so I don't know what my reaction would be now.

    Ditto the music. I don't remember it, but I often think that Vangelis seems really out of place all the time since it's no longer the 1980s.

    1. This was always one of those movies I had heard about, but never got around to seeing. I had had it in my Netflix queue for quite a while. I had recently moved it up because I had been wanting to do this category for a while, and then damned if it wasn't being shown on either A&E or Bravo a few weeks ago so I watched it that way.