Getting out of Djarkata

Rachel Ingalls

The Australian film-maker Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Djakarta shortly before the failed Communist coup of 1965. The story concerns three characters: Guy Hamilton, a half-Australian, half-American reporter working on his first big assignment for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Jill Bryant, English assistant to the British military attachè; and Billy Kwan, a dwarf-like photographer who is half-Australian, half-Chinese, and who takes secret photographs and keeps lengthy files on the other characters, especially the ones he cares about. The audience is actually introduced to Guy as Billy is typing up the dossier on him. Billy is like a stage-manager: he teams up with Guy, furthers his career by getting him an interview with the head of the Communist Party, and introduces him to Jill in the hope that the two will fall in love, which they do.

It is entirely owing to Billy’s manoeuvrings that Guy wins a respected position among the other journalists in the city. These include a lecher named Curtis, who one evening buys Guy a dwarf while Billy is sitting at the same table. A joke, says Curtis. Later on, when Curtis is given Saigon as his next assignment, the animosity is forgotten and Guy goes out on the town with him. But at the beginning, Guy’s only close acquaintance is Billy. He looks at things the way Billy teaches him to. ‘I can be your eyes,’ Billy tells him. We see Guy and Billy recording and photographing in the middle of a demonstration. Guy has his first sight of Jill as she appears in a picture taken by Billy. Billy brings him to meet her at the side of a large swimming-pool, follows them on an outing to Priok, takes shots of them when they are not aware of it, and pushes Guy into attending a reception because Jill will be there. By this time Guy is in love. He pulls Jill out of the crowd and takes her home to Billy’s house. Billy, who is supposed to be away at the time, stands outside and gently runs his hand over the bullet-holes on the car that the two lovers have driven through a curfew blockade. (This is one of the two places where you may feel got at by underlined meanings too obvious to be worth noticing. The other point is at the second entry of the Strauss song, when Billy madly types out his St Luke-cum-Tolstoy question, ‘What then shall we do?’ and Kiri Te Kanawa is boosted far beyond an acceptable decibel level, thus goading us into more emotion than the moment can stand.)

Billy too loves Jill. And he has tried to educate Guy to the stage where he is worthy of her. He has shown Guy his collection of puppets: the prince, the princess and the dwarf who is their servant. He himself has adopted a Malay woman and her young son, who falls ill from drinking and bathing in infected water. Billy’s interest is platonic, although the woman is a prostitute. He gives her money to help the child.

When a message about an arms’ shipment comes through the military attaché’s office, Jill tells Guy about it. She wanders around in the rain for a while before coming to the decision, but it does not seem to have occurred to her that he might broadcast the information. ‘You can’t use this,’ she says, and he answers her: ‘Then you shouldn’t have told me.’ She has also told Billy, who is furious with Guy, says that everyone in Djakarta will know where the information came from and that it will be a betrayal of Jill. ‘I created you,’ he claims. ‘I taught you to see things.’ He also says that he gave Jill to Guy and now he’s taking her back.

Guy goes looking for information about the shipment. After helping him to follow one lead, Kumar, his assistant, drives him to an old Dutch villa, where he encounters a glamorously transformed version of his office girl, Tigerlily. She wears a black bathing-suit and tucks her hair into a white bathing-cap. Guy sits at the side of a swimming-pool overgrown by a scum of brownish waterweeds. The girl scrapes away some of the weeds with a sign saying, ‘forbidden’, then dives into the pool. Guy goes indoors to rest. He dreams that he is swimming underwater with the girl. The scene seems at first to be innocent, but suddenly she tries to drown him. He wakes from the dream with the realisation that his office staff belongs to the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party. Kumar admits that if it came to a fight, violence would be necessary. And it is not long before the violence begins.

Billy finds that the young son of his adopted family has died. People riot in the streets for rice. He feels that Sukarno, who has been like a god to him, is betraying his country. He stages a protest during a huge party: hangs a sign reading, ‘Sukarno, feed your people,’ from a high window, and falls or jumps as the security police break into the room. Guy and Jill are nearby at the time. They see each other afterwards at Billy’s place, where Guy tells Jill to get on the next plane leaving the city.

The next day is the day of the coup. Guy tries to get to the Presidential palace but is clubbed in the eye by a soldier. His driver takes him back to safety, gets him a doctor and then leaves. Guy’s injury will probably heal if he rests for a week, but if not he may lose the sight in that eye. Kumar comes to visit him, bringing news that the coup has failed and that the lives of PKI members are now in danger. Guy persuades Kumar to drive him to the airport. They set off, passing firing-squads on the way. Guy reaches the airport, has his papers stamped, gives up his tape-recorder and walks to the plane. He gets out of the country taking nothing with him but his passport. Up the airplane steps he goes, in a medium long-shot, so that anyone who has not been following the plot too carefully may be forgiven for wondering why he has suddenly decided to run off with a stewardess. (It’s actually Jill, but a lot has been going on since he told her to get on that plane.)

The film is based on C.J. Koch’s book, The Year of Living Dangerously.[*] Credit for the screen adaptation is given to Mr Koch, together with David Williamson and Peter Weir himself. Some faults in the film probably have to do with production difficulties – for instance, the fact that all the Malay characters speak Tagalog (all right for the Philippines, where the film was shot) instead of Bahasa Indonesia, which would be correct for Djakarta; although they are the same language, the difference to the ear is approximately as great as between the tones of Alice Springs and Chicago. This technical anomaly constitutes a definite strike against a film that attempts to mix fiction with fact, particularly politically dramatic and bloody fact. But a much greater fault is the confused screenplay. There are at least four plot-lines running through this work and just when you think they are going to coincide, they sabotage each other.

The main theme of the book is that of the shadow-puppet theatre, the wayang kulit: all the characters, all the political figures and events are depicted with ultimate reference to that idea; and there is time and scope to blend the real with the invented. The factual parts of the novel are informed and informative, the fictional characters a good deal more plausible and less prettified than in the film. Mr Koch is especially good on the world of the foreign correspondent. His Djakarta is a place of fear, suspicion, competition and intrigue. The Guy Hamilton of the film has none of the resilience, persistence or cunning of the original – above all, none of his unwillingness to believe in appearances. In their effort to squeeze the whole book into a screenplay, the writers have had to pare down the characters to stereotypes. This would be all right if we were intended to see only the two lovers against the colourful background blur of a war-torn city. But the film aims higher than that. It aims for everything the book succeeds in, after having abandoned the book’s subtle construction.

The book starts out being narrated in the first person by a journalist one assumes to be C.J. Koch. He mentions both Guy and Billy. He is also looking back to the time in question and is in possession of Billy’s files, which are then quoted. From there on in, the narrative glides easily into the third person wherever necessary. The narrator of Guy’s story disappears, so that we read it directly. This ingenious method of story-telling works so well that one does not balk at the frequent change of focus – in fact, it seems to suit the large canvas. But in the film, Billy takes over the position of author, with the result that he becomes the hero of the piece. He dominates the viewer’s imagination. When Billy dies, the audience loses much of their interest in the surviving characters. It is possible that a mere voice-over extract from the files could avoid this difficulty, but probably not, as the imbalance seems intended: the character carries a tremendous authorial and directorial charge. From the first moment of the film, Billy tells us what to think and we trust him. We also admire his restless and poetic mind. Guy’s suspicion that Billy is an agent does not impress – we know he couldn’t be one; nor does Guy’s remark that Jill might be a spy: she is introduced on Billy’s recommendation, so she has to be all right. Straightaway we have lost the idea that the political conflict has its echo in the doubts and treachery among the characters. Billy is not to be doubted. There is consequently no sense of Guy’s guilt at his failure to trust him. And Billy himself suffers from over-sanctification. Too little remains of his deep need to believe in heroes, of his thwarted sexuality, his voyeurism, his clinical approach to emotions he does not share, his compulsion to control others and incapacity to deal with his own powerful emotions. There is no reason left, except perhaps excessive spiritual sensitivity, why he should be the character who cracks. He makes a grand, romantic gesture that is politically useless, and he knows it. What we are given instead of this interesting man is an idealised portrait of an artist full of understanding and compassion, who is so centrally positioned that he becomes, as it were, the progenitor of all the other people around him. Things are not made better by the fact that among the many fine performances here – all of which manage to transcend their material – Linda Hunt’s Billy is irresistibly the star part.

If the first mistake in the screen adaptation is the decision to make Billy the narrator, the second is the attempt to keep the look of political unrest, while refusing to allow any native statement about it. We are given Billy’s education of Guy, but get the Malay point of view only at the very end, when Kumar asks Guy if it is wrong that he should want to help his people: ‘Why should I live like a poor man all my life, while stupid people in your country live well?’ This is such an important point that it should be presented at the start of the film, where it might help to establish some notion of what all these foreign journalists are doing in the country and why the people who live there are suffering. Kumar, of course, cannot come out from cover till later, but his thoughts and words might have been given to another character. They could, for example, be given to the Communist leader to whom Guy speaks in the interview Billy obtains for him – the interview which is the making of Guy’s career as a correspondent and which, for some incomprehensible reason, we are never shown. We see demonstrations without hearing the opinions of the participants, we are told that Guy is a good reporter, but we do not see him actively at work with other people, only passively looking on or caught in the middle of a mob. He and all the other main characters of the film except Billy are isolated from the political events.

The plots, themes or general ideas in the film concern betrayal, conversion, sacrifice, voyeurism, the nature of the artist and of his place in society. They are all supposed to hang together, as in the book, but they tend to bump into each other. Jill betrays her employers, and therefore her country, to Guy. He betrays her trust for the sake of his job. Billy only betrays himself after being betrayed by his idol, and dies sacrificially. Guy sacrifices his tapes, and perhaps an eye, to win Jill back. Jill does not seem to be called upon to make good her betrayal, as it is enough for her to be the future wife of the hero and to forgive him. Her part makes less sense than anyone else’s. She considers Guy’s latest despatch melodramatic. This appears to turn him on. While looking at a photograph of Jill and her former lover, Philippe, he asks: ‘Was Philippe a good journalist?’ ‘One of the best,’ she says, and it almost sounds as if what she needs from a man is good writing and what Guy has always wanted is the perfect literary critic. This line of thought might somehow have been connected with the later conflict of loyalties over the message about the arms’ shipment and a theme that had to do with integrity and trust in one’s work. It is dropped as soon as Jill and Guy become lovers. Her criticism of his work merely presents her as a woman who is fairly intelligent and does not go to bed with men as soon as she meets them.

There are many other points where pieces of characterisation and truncated plot are scattered around. The night-town scene with Curtis may link up with part of a pornography or prostitution theme not present elsewhere; it does little to further the plot, but shows that after Guy falls in love, he will not sleep around with other women even when he’s drunk, and that he’s a better man than Curtis, not just a better journalist. (The book tells us that Curtis is a first-rate newspaperman. That’s why he gets the Saigon assignment.) Some scraps of a free-floating equation about love-sex-commercialism-truth appear to be at work here, adding to the narrative sprawl.

The theme most comprehensively explored is, appropriately, voyeurism. It is not worked out completely because of the change in Billy’s character and standpoint, but it is frequently present and often implied. Our attention is drawn to the fact that the Western journalists report, photograph and describe scenes as if they were theatrical events of no concern to them. We see Billy taking candid-camera shots of lovers he has brought together. And very late in the game we realise that there are political spies all over the place.

There is also another plot, like a shadow in the story, which has almost nothing to do with the action, but is just a combination of sets of patterns and is in a way more interesting than the pseudo-realistic tale of foreign correspondents in Djakarta. It places each character next to another similar or opposite type and lets the audience draw its own conclusions. Billy is like Guy. ‘We even look alike,’ he tells him. ‘It’s true, we’ve got the same colour eyes.’ Billy is trying to make Guy use his eyes to look at the world as he does. Billy is also like Sukarno, who is the creator and puppet-master of his country. And, on the other hand, he is like the dwarf Curtis buys for Guy. Every character has a disguise as another person, and sometimes a double – even bright swimming-pool of the European community repeats itself as the overgrown pool at the Dutch villa. The madonna-figure of the Malay mother, who is a prostitute out of necessity, is set against Jill, who; if not loved and appreciated, ‘could lapse into the promiscuity and bitterness of the failed Romantic’ (a gorgeous movie line). Guy, the good journalist, stands in contrast to Pete Curtis, although they could also be congruent personalities. Billy dies in Christ-like sacrifice. Guy, like Judas, betrays his teachings. The Christian allusions apply to West and East alike, the visual images mirror each other. Jill in her swimming-pool resembles the Malay girl in hers, and so on.

Billy counsels Guy to watch the shadows, not the puppets. Certainly this shadow-plot is more successful than the main story. It is possible that if the team of scriptwriters had junked half the realistic plot, they could have made a better picture out of the interplay of the three main characters in all their disguises: the artist who loves the woman he cannot obtain, the woman only satisfied by the man who does not love her enough, and the ambitious, worldly man who is afraid to trust people and refuses his friendship to the man who asks for and deserves it. It might even have been possible to get away with a happy ending for such a film.

Mr Koch does not give his book a happy ending. His hero and heroine escape on the plane, but she remembers that his reaction to her pregnancy was the phrase, ‘Even if it isn’t mine,’ and he is going to feel out of place in Europe, is guilty about his failure to trust Billy, and is going to be totally blind. They will not have an easy life, in spite of their love, nor is it right that they should, for Djakarta is meant to be the world as it is everywhere – one never escapes it unscathed. And, according to Billy, the only way to alleviate suffering is to do what you can about what you see in front of you, to give and to participate.

What Mr Weir makes of this rather sour conclusion is the hero’s adventurous and dashing ride to the airport, escape to freedom and to the arms of his beloved. Approximately five hundred thousand people will be massacred in the wake of their departing aircraft, but we are supposed to think only of this immaculate candybox couple who get out of the mess and will live happily ever after somewhere else. It is easy to imagine how they will be: he in a man-of-distinction eyepatch, she still with her large collection of nice clothes. What is this picture about? It sets us up for wisdom and sacrifice and then hands us a quick get-out, telling us to rejoice despite the bloodshed – with these lovers fled away. One would like to know to what extent the ending was forced on the director by the unit’s ejection from the Philippines and the backers’ refusal to come up with the money for a change of location.

There are still some fine things to look at. All the love scenes, especially the three kissing scenes, are intimate and tender. The political action and crowd scenes are well-paced and exciting. Everything looks right, vivid, attractive. And there is one scene that shows us just how good this film might have been: the scene at the Dutch villa and the dream that reveals his danger to Guy. Everything the snarled-up script pretends to, and fails in, this scene achieves, without effort and without words. It improves on the book, where the events take place as part of a digression concerning Guy’s flirtation with a Russian spy who gives him a doped drink after she tries to push him under in the pool. The film has Guy watching the girl scrape away the waterweeds with the ‘forbidden’ sign. He smiles but she does not smile back. She dives into the scummy water. He is then shown covered in sweat and sleeping, and afterwards comes the dream of being underwater, accompanied by the muffled sound of bubbling water. The encounter with the girl, at first playful and as if about to become amorous, shifts all at once into fear and combat. She pushes him downward. The shot changes, the sound stops, we see her head out of the water, her face grimacing with hatred as she tries to kill him. And he wakes up suddenly. Every theme so disordered in the rest of the picture finds easy expression here: the interaction of West and East, man and woman, light and darkness, the exotic and the homicidal, pretence and truth. The scene is handled with daring, elegance and precision.

[*] Sphere, 296 pp., £1.75, March 1981, 0 7221 5290 6.