The Year of Living Dangerously rises from the shadows
There is no dearth of movies about lost souls and searching Westerners who, as strangers in strange lands, ultimately find themselves. Think The Razor's Edge and Beyond Rangoon. Peter Weir's marvelous, gorgeously acted 1982 movie, The Year of Living Dangerously, is one of the best of this breed.
It receives somewhat short shrift on DVD: It's awfully dark and murky in several interior and night scenes, it's gritty even in daylight, and the transfer has some scratches and blips. But the cast more than compensates for the losses in image quality.
The Year of Living Dangerously gave the world its first glimpse of the star power that Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver would ultimately attain. They have an abundance of sexual chemistry; what makes the pairing work and the sparks fly is the danger that surrounds and ignites the lovers.
There's additional charm in Weaver's testimony that she and Gibson were so green about screen romance that Weir "had to teach them how to kiss for the movie by playing clips of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious." Gibson and Weaver ultimately do just fine in this smart, sexy, complex look at the lives of a group of foreign correspondents in 1965 Indonesia who, under the rule of President Sukarno, are forced to face the fact that the West is the enemy. The economic chasm between what Sukarno has promised his constituency and what his people have actually received is best explained by the idealistic dwarf, Billy Kwan (convincingly played by Linda Hunt), a photographer who desires a friendship with the new kid on the block, Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Gibson), after the latter has been assigned to Jakarta.
Kwan firmly believes in Sukarno's policies; he aids Hamilton in getting a scoop he needs because he thinks Hamilton will help him send the world the message that Sukarno is a god to the people. But Kwan pays a price for his loyalty. He learns that there is no truth or loyalty in politics and power, and that Sukarno has exploited the people as much as Kwan's own quiet, behind-the-scenes manipulations have set up Hamilton to fall in love with his best friend, Jill Bryant (Weaver), a British embassy worker.
"Poverty is a huge aphrodisiac," says Kwan sarcastically at one point, but he refuses to take responsibility for his part in the machinations of the wheel that is turning in Jakarta. Sukarno is a dictator, and when Kwan realizes he has made a mistake by blindly becoming a part of the problem, not the solution, he makes the ultimate self-sacrifice.
Linda Hunt won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Billy Kwan—the only time an actor has won for playing a character of the opposite gender. She is a marvel as the once-true believer who must pay a heavy price for discovering the truth. "What now must we do?" Kwan laments (echoing Leo Tolstoy) as he looks out on the starving, struggling lower depths of Jakarta's population.
The Year of Living Dangerously deserves a better transfer than it receives here. The sound is at times muddy and dim, and unless the volume is turned up, it's difficult to catch the backdrop conversations and street noise that help convey the misery of this forlorn place. It's hard to believe that there isn't a better negative available of a film shot in 1981. Perhaps one day this extraordinary movie will get a presentation on DVD that will do it justice.