I love THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, the gripping 1983 Peter Weir drama about an Australian reporter caught up in the chaos of 1965 Indonesia. It affects me each time I see it, and one quick scene tears me up most of all. A woman walks through the teeming streets of Jakarta, drenched by a tropical downpour. The bit lasts but 30 seconds. Backed by the heart-aching beauty of Vangelis music from “L’Enfant, Opera Sauvage”, the expression on the face of Sigourney Weaver as she passes through the crowd speaks volumes on the sea change of outlook one may—should–-have when face-to-face with the monstrous inequities of life in the 3rd World.
Manila impersonates Jakarta here, as the movies politics could not be tolerated to allow filming in Indonesia. I guess I relate so much because I spent years in The Philippines, mostly with its less well-off people, but I believe anyone with a working heart and functioning conscience who have visited similar locales would look at Weaver in that scene—tall, privileged and Western, actress and character alike–and feel that she gets it.
The whole movie gets it, start to finish it’s soaked in atmosphere. There’s politics: complex, but not so murky you’re lost. There’s sizzling romance, but it’s adult and believable and exactly weighted to the plot without tipping it over. It’s tense and exciting: danger and violence figure, but neither are illogical or gratuitous.
Mel Gibson stars; fresh, trim, and looking like million bucks at a hungry 26, with none of the cutesy tricks he’d load up on a few years later. Michael Murphy delivers recognizable prickdom to a tee, while Bill Kerr, Noel Ferrier and Bembel Roco offer solid support. Kuh Ledesma, a sultry Filipino singing institution plays ‘Tiger Lily’. Good as they all are, the acting honors are carried off by Linda Hunt: sly, sharp and moving, altogether remarkable as ‘Billy Kwan’, copping a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
C.J.Koch based the superb script on his novel; Weir and David Williamson (Gallipoli, Don’s Party) pitched in. The sensuous look comes courtesy of Weir favorite Russell Boyd, whose camera drinks in squalid slums, bamboo-wreathed bungalows, ex-pat parties, urban riots, a daring, sexy lovers joy ride through blazing guns at a curfew barricade and stunning views of the rice terraces of Banaue, in the mountains of Luzon. Maurice Jarre coats it all in one of his best scores, incorporating gamelan ensembles as well as borrowing that lovely Vangelis piece to stunning effect.
The $13,000,000 picture was successful, though Hunt’s was the sole Oscar accorded: it deserved nominations for the Picture and Director slots taken by the instantly forgettable Tender Mercies. Terms of Endearment won (ought to have been The Right Stuff) but this great film should at least have been a contender. Of course it needs to be mentioned that the real losers were the people of 1965 Indonesia, who paid with at least a half million lives for the right wing coup (abetted by the CIA) that fixed power in the hands of yet another corrupt military regime for decades.