The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt in her Oscar-winning role, is proof that the 80s were capable of thoughtful movies about something more than eye candy and materialism. The film is a languid romance/political drama set in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1963 amidst a Communist coup and the political re-alignment of President Sukarno’s regime. Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, an Australian journalist who’s sent to Jakarta as a correspondent and who, with the help of a Chinese-Australian photographer named Billy Kwan (Hunt), accumulates some surprisingly good stories for his frequent radio broadcasts. Billy Kwan, a dwarf, is an idealist who wants more Westerners to take notice of the wretched living conditions of the people in Indonesia. As someone who’s spent his life on the margins of society, Kwan has developed a deep-rooted compassion for the oppressed and the disadvantaged. He thinks Guy can help bring awareness to the plight of people in Jakarta, but Guy is more interested in what a good story can do to advance his career than how he can help bring about lasting social change. He’s also distracted by Jill (Weaver), a woman working for the British embassy. Weir, who along with David Williamson adapted Christopher Koch’s novel, falters somewhat with the romance. It’s never passionate enough, and neither Gibson nor Weaver is given much compelling acting to do together. (But they are both very good, and Gibson--whatever one may feel about him nowadays--proves himself a strong leading man.)
Peter Weir is far more interested in the social message of his film, thus making Linda Hunt’s character Billy the real heart—and conscience—of the movie. But Weir’s film taps into a genuine compassion, rather than a shallow kind of self-serving “awareness." The movie rings true and is very thoughtfully made, so the slightly under-developed (or maybe it's just unsatisfying) romance between the two Westerners actually fits; Weir gives a healthy examination of the Western presence in Asia (just as E.M. Forster did in his effective novel A Passage to India), and in a way, the Hollywood romance aspect of the film deflates the idea that Westerners will come and save Asia from themselves. The film isn’t that far off from Richard Lester’s Cuba, which pitted Sean Connery and Brooke Adams against the competing Castro and Batista regimes during the 1959 revolution in Havana. The Year of Living Dangerously is definitely worth seeing. (And it’s a fabulous title.) With Michael Murphy, Bill Kerr, Noel Ferrier, Bembol Roco, and Paul Sonkkila. The terrific, effective music score is by Maurice Jarre. Filmed mostly in the Philippines.