What then must we do?
1965. A time of violent political turmoil in Southeast Asia. Indonesian President Sukarno has declared this "the year of living dangerously," and as Australian journalist Guy Hamilton steps off the plane to face his first overseas assignment, a tall white man confronted with Jakarta in all its threat and strangeness. Watchful soldiers with automatic weapons. Uniforms everywhere, Asian faces, unintelligible language. Hand-scrawled posters; Go to hell. U.S. Out. CRUSH British and U.S. Imperialism. And a strangely-inflected, almost croaking narrator comments, "You're an enemy here Hamilton, like all Westerners. President Sukarno tells the West to go to hell. And today, Sukarno is the voice of the Third World."
Soon we will meet the owner of that voice, a half-Chinese, half-Australian photographer named Billy Kwan who takes the new journalist under his wing and offers a partnership: "That's what I've always wanted, a real partnership... We'll make a great team old man. You for the words, me for the pictures. I can be your eyes."
But who is this Billy Kwan? And what is the real nature of their relationship, which forms the heart of the film? Kwan is the first character we meet, even before Hamilton touches down, a curiously small man who must reach up from his chair to methodically type information about the new man into some sort of file. He secures a partnership with the Australian journalist by instantly procuring an exclusive interview with the head of the Communist Party. A dwarf, neither Western nor Asian, he seems outside the inner circle of foreign journalists who gather at the Wayang bar, as he seems an outsider in every context we see him in. Yet he apparently has access everywhere, information about everyone, and can move through the dangerous streets of Jakarta unharmed and unnoticed.
If there is mystery about Billy's political intentions, there is also something about the personal aspect of this friendship which makes us increasingly uneasy. He seems too eager to win Hamilton's friendship, and when he wonders whether Hamilton might be "the unmet friend," we have the sense that this isolated little man is trying to fit the newcomer into some personal mythology he has created – an intuition which is substantiated when Billy describes the characters of the sacred Wayang shadow plays;
KWAN: Look at Prince Arjuna. He's a hero. But he can also be fickle and selfish.... This is the Princess Srikandi, noble and proud. But headstrong Arjuna will fall in love with her."
GUY: And who's this one?
KWAN: Ah, he's very special. The dwarf Semar.
GUY: What does he do?
KWAN: He serves the prince.
The correspondence with the two men – at least in Billy's mind – is unmistakable, and in the next line of dialogue he introduces "my Jilly," the third character in this strange little triangle. Through the ensuing scenes he pulls strings to bring Hamilton and the beautiful young woman together, as we become increasingly aware not only of the little man's attraction to Jill Bryant – "I asked her to marry me once: she turned me down" – but also of his almost absurd identification with Guy Hamilton; " We're friends, aren't we? Make a good team. Even look alike. It's true, it's been noticed. Got the same colored eyes."
But there are further complexities here. As much as Billy plays out the role of the servant to his friend Guy, he also sees himself as mentor. When he first leads the newcomer through the dangerous, impoverished streets of Jakarta, he is clearly functioning as something more than a tour guide;
BILLY: And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?And when we come to learn that Billy goes regularly – and it seems, secretly - to visit a destitute widow and her ailing little boy, it is clear that his compassion and faith have real substance.
GUY: What's that?
BILLY: It's from Luke, chapter three, verse ten. What then must we do? Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and just gave away all his money. You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.
GUY: Wouldn't do any good, just be a drop in the ocean.
BILLY: Ahh, that's the same conclusion Tolstoy came to, I disagree.
GUY: Oh, what's your solution?
BILLY: Well, I support the view that you just don't think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that's in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light. You think that's naive, don't you?
BILLY: It's alright, most journalists do.
GUY: We can't afford to get involved.
BILLY: Typical journo's answer. (Voice Over) You're ambitious, self-contained, moderate to conservative in politics, and despite your naivete, I sense a potential, something immediately apparent, a possibility - could you be the un-met friend?
Essentially, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is about one man's passion to see another man come alive, politically and spiritually. When he says he will be Hamilton's eyes, he means to do much more than simply supply photos to accompany the reporter's newspaper articles (notice that it is the reporter's eye that is damaged when he tries to gain entry to the palace after Billy's death, that his ultimate change of heart occurs while lying blindfolded, that he begins removing the blindfold as soon as he decides on his final course of action, and that he risks his eye by so doing.) Not only will Billy reveal open the eyes of the career-oriented Western journalist to the harsh realities of Third World life, he seeks to quicken his friend's perception of the spiritual world all around them. As they approach Billy Kwan's house for the first time, Guy is spooked by the eerie creaking around them: Billy tells him it's the bamboo, but goes on to say
BILLY: There is a spirit here. I hear him outside at night. Came inside one night and spilled some bottles of developer.A number of times during the following events, when Billy Kwan or the spiritual world are mentioned, we hear similar creaking sounds: when he comes to Hamilton's office unannounced, it is a bamboo-like creaking of the door which startles Hamilton and announces Billy's presence.
GUY: Do you really believe that stuff?
BILLY: Absolutely, old man. The unseen is all around us. Particularly here in Java.
This is, of course, prime Peter Weir territory – a western materialist is pulled out of the world he takes for granted and confronted with spiritual mysteries in a world he doesn't understand. Particularly in the director's earlier films we see this theme again and again; the school girls in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, David Burton in THE LAST WAVE, John Booker in WITNESS, the Max Klein in FEARLESS. At a special showing of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY for the Director's Guild of America presented in his honour, Weir said he wasn't very interested in the politics of the Sukarno coup:
I loved the line in the book, 'You become like a child again when you first go to Asia.' It's that sense of wonder that everything is new, everything is unknown — there's a kind of mystery in everything.
In the film, we hear this expressed in Billy's voice-over (taken directly from the novel) as he first leads Guy through the streets of Jakarta;
Most of us become children again when we enter the slums of Asia. And last night I watched you walk back into childhood, with all its opposite intensities...Indeed, this theme of "becoming as a little child" reverberates through C.J. Koch's novel more explicitly than in the film, where they must be rendered visually. In significant ways the film is not the book, but there is clearly a congruence between Billy's often childlike physicality – sitting cross-legged on the desk, or being lifted to Hamilton's shoulders to take photographs of the PKI demonstration – which are visual equivalents to lines such as this description of their initial meeting;
"The cameraman extended his hand, tilting his head back and offering his broad Chinese grin.... The spiky head only just reached his elbow; it was as though the new man walked with a strange child." (pg 7)Indeed, the sense that Hamilton and Billy are alike in being new men / children is a frequent theme in the novel, right from the opening paragraph; "It brings out the curious child in us to encounter one of these little people."
The central metaphor for the inter-relation of supernatural and material realities is brilliantly cinematic: the Wayang shadow-puppet play. Immediately we are thrust into this strange, indecipherably foreign, supernatural world as sacred gamelan music plays and the opening titles are projected over a performance of one of these ancient spiritual stories.
BILLY: Their shadows are souls. The screen is heaven. You must watch their shadows, not the puppets.We hear children laughing at the shadowy events being projected onto the screen in front of them – a remarkable metaphor not only for the way everyday flesh and blood events carry spiritual significance, but also for the art of film itself, where flickering projections of darkness and light evoke stories that can be filled with spiritual truth.
This motif recurs often throughout the film. The walls of the Wayang bar, where the journalists meet to socialize and swap leads, are decorated with light-box scenes from the sacred shadow plays, evoking a complex set of metaphors and questions about the insubstantiality of the stories the journalists report, the spiritual implications of their activities and relationships, and a sense that even in their place of retreat from the heat and chaos of Jakarta they are being observed not only by something distinctly Asian, but by supernatural presences they never recognize. When Guy Hamilton first goes into the ABS broadcast office, gamelan music plays as we remain outside and see his silhouette projected onto an opaque window pane in precise parallel with the shadow plays, and when Jill comes to bring him news of the impending revolution, the camera is framed exactly the same as they kiss, silhouetted against that same pane of glass. When Hamilton radios his news stories, we see the images of the Asian characters reflected indistinctly in the glass window of the sound-proof broadcast booth.
Much of the Wayang imagery has to do with Billy, who is himself a puppet-master – as is Sukarno, the other hero with whom Billy so closely identifies;
The puppet master is a priest. That's why they call Sukarno the great puppet master. Balancing the left with the right... The right in constant struggle with the left. The forces of light and darkness in endless balance....All of this imagery comes together in the sequence where the question of Billy's trustworthiness is brought to the surface by Guy, then (in a certain sense) resolved as we see Billy go in secret to help a widow and her dying son. As Billy bandages the cut his friend received during the PKI demonstration, Guy discovers the files, and confronts Billy;
Who you working for, Billy?We cut directly to Billy working on his files, the voice-over causing us to further question how trustworthy Billy might be – not so much for his possible political secrets as for his psychological ones. Again, what's been implied is now brought to the surface. Just as the three Wayang puppets are among his most prized possessions, he seeks to orchestrate the lives of his friends, invisible like the priest behind the screen. As Semar the dwarf, Billy may exist primarily to serve his master Arjuna, but unseen, he is also the puppet-master, shaping the stories of his friends' lives. He works for Hamilton, but he is also working Hamilton. As Kwan manipulates his files, he comments,
The Communists? The CIA?
Who are you working for? Why the hell do you keep a file on me?
I keep files on just about everybody.
What for? Why?
That's my business.
Look, if you're an operative for someone else—
Well how am I supposed to know that?
You're just going to have to trust me, aren't you?
Here on the quiet page I'm master, just as I'm master in the darkroom, stirring my prints in the magic developing bath. I shuffle like cards the lives I deal with. Their faces stare out at me. People who will become other people. People who will become old, betray their dreams, become ghosts.This cuts directly to Billy making his way through the slums of Jakarta: the gamelan plays, and he is silhouetted against fires, or his shadow projected onto walls. Once again we are moved to trust him – note how our perceptions of his character are also an incessant interplay of darkness and light – as we see his evident compassion, unselfish and practical, for this widow and her dying boy. And as he tries to cheer this child lying at the doorway between life and death, Billy manipulates a mechanical toy, its gestures strangely evocative of the shadow puppets seen during the opening title sequence. And then we see him again making an entry in his file;
Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city. What then must we do? We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.And our trust in this strange man is deepened as we see his awareness that there is a transcendent puppet-master who shaping the stories even of earthly priests and puppet-masters, intentionally placing others in the path of his compassion.
In their final conflict, when Billy accuses Guy of betrayal in filing the PKI arms shipment story that Jill gave him, Guy confronts Billy with the arrogance and delusional nature of the puppet-master role he has chosen for himself;
BILLY: I would have given up the world for her. You won't even give up one story.... I gave her to you, and now I'm taking her back.Perhaps in seeking to be God's agent, Billy has made himself a god – it is interesting to note that Semar, the dwarf character in the Wayang, "is also a god in disguise. My patron. The patron of all dwarfs." (pg 83)
GUY: You gave her to me? For Christ's sake, you mad little bastard. You think you can control people's lives just cause you've got them in your bloody files?
BILLY: I believed in you. I thought you were a man of light, that's why I gave you those stories you think are so important. I made you see things. I'll be your eyes. I made you feel something about what you write. I gave you my trust. So did Jill. I created you.
In any case, Guy's accusations precipitate an agonizing crisis. Billy agonizes through his own Golgotha alone in his room, playing his opera records, staring at the photos of the mother and her now-dead son, at the eyes of Asian people he has photographed, sobbing "Oh my God, my God, my God" as he types, over and over, "What then must we do?"
This culminates in Billy's final desperate act. In something of a violation of his politic of compassion, simply to act charitably toward whomever God brings in his path and leave aside overt political actions, he resorts to an explicitly political act by trying to confront his other fallen hero by scrawling a large white banner – "Sukarno, feed your people!" – which he will hang out the window of the Hotel Indonesia just as the President arrives. Inevitably, Billy is killed in the act: ironically, the banner is removed before Sukarno even sees it. But Billy dies with a smile, looking up into the face of Guy Hamilton. Has he finally found, in this self-sacrificial death, the answer to his haunting question, "What then must we do?" Or does he simply see love in the face of his grief-stricken friend?
This final act of sacrificial love, which may be the doorway to his friend's redemption, raises the question whether Billy may be something of a Christ figure. Lloyd Baugh thinks so: "Billy Kwan in Peter Weir's 1982 film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY acts as master and guide for Guy Hamilton, in the end paying for Hamilton's salvation with his life." Certainly this notion is introduced early in the film, when he quietly challenges Pete's use of the cemetery prostitutes;
BILLY: Starvation's a great aphrodisiac.There are other hints and suggestions: when another journalist is astonished that Billy correctly identifies the stranger in the bar as "the new ABS man," another character remarks "The guy knows everything."
PETE: Keep it up, Billy, keep it up. We'll just nail you to the old cross, huh? Besides, he can afford to be virtuous, you know. He's holding hands with the best looking chick in town.
BILLY: She's a friend Curtis.
PETE: Sure she is Billy.
BILLY: You'd find that kind of relationship hard to understand, wouldn't you Curtis?
PETE: Oh get me the nails, I'm going to hang the little bastard up right now.
Clearly, though, we don't want to take this too far. It could be said that, more than actually being a messiah figure, Billy had a messiah complex. But that is too negative a judgment on this complex character. To some degree, anyone who tries to follow Christ will aspire to be like their master, to do things that Christ did: and certainly, self-sacrifice is central to the way that Jesus taught and modeled.
But this in turn raises the question, was Billy a follower of Jesus? He quotes from the gospels, and is deeply affected by one of the most explicitly religious books by the Christian writer, Leo Tolstoy. For all the aspects of Eastern religious thought he also seems to have incorporated into his belief system, I couldn't help seeing Billy as a fellow Christian when I first saw the film – an impression that was substantiated when I subsequently read the novel. When talking with Guy about his personal response to poverty and suffering, Billy prefaces his thoughts with the phrase "Of course there's always the Christian point of view, to which I usually subscribe." He reads Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic mystic, and next to the Wayang puppets on Billy's wall hung a plain crucifix. Asked about his concern for the poor, he responds "As a Christian, I have to be concerned about them – they're my brothers" (pg 96). But as unabashed as he is about identifying himself as a Christian, he goes on to say;
I'm a convert. But I don't think the Faith is much good unless it's passionate. Lately I have a feeling the Church has spent its passion. If it has, it's no place for me. There's something rather fine about Islam, don't you think? The passion's still there. I'm attracted to it.... Religion's no good without passion. That's why I left the Methodists. Yeah, I even tried them at one stage.... When I see these people living like stray dogs I get angry. I think a Christian should get angry. I'm a Christian radical, if you like." (pp 96, 98)These details are external to the world of the film, and don't bear directly on it. Still, for all it necessarily trims out of the novel, the movie script plays straight with to the material it can keep – the novelist is one of the three credited screenwriters, along with David Williamson and Peter Weir himself. Suffice it to say that the suggestions of Billy's Christianity are born out by the source novel, as are the ambiguities and contradictions we also see.
There is a fundamental tension in Billy that has to do with his dwarfism, and the way that has excluded him from many things. He is Chinese and Australian, both eastern and western, and yet neither. He says in a voice-over as he works on Hamilton's file, cutting out his friend's figure, puppet-like, from a photograph, "I find we have something else in common. We are divided men.... We're not quite at home in the world."
Is Billy a Christ-figure? Sort of. Is he a Christian? Mostly. But where does the film itself come down, in the final analysis. The answer is as evasive as the answers to the previous questions.
Perhaps the film is itself profoundly eastern, and to attempt to "Christianize" would be to falsify it, to miss its point. The controlling image of the film is that of the Wayang shadow play: describing it for Guy, Billy says " In the west we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong, or good or bad. But in the Wayang, no such final conclusions exist." Guy's journey toward spiritual awakening culminates in his own long dark night of the soul, blindfolded, lying on his back in Billy's apartment, his future – even his survival – uncertain in the midst of the political chaos the country has descended to. The bamboo creaks, he mutters to himself, he hears Billy's voice quoting from the Wayang: "All is clouded by desire." Then his ABS assistant arrives, tells Guy of the failure of the Communist coup. Guy listens to Kumar's words, so reminiscent of Billy's;
KUMAR: Am I a stupid man? Then why should I live like a poor man all my life, when stupid people in your country live well?And they are off.
GUY: Good question.
KUMAR: Mr Billy Kwan was right. Westerners do not have answers anymore. Water from the moon.
GUY: What does that mean, Kumar?
KUMAR: It's an old Javanese saying. It means something one cannot ever have.
And after a moment's silence, Hamilton knows what he must do. Unwrapping the bandage from his eyes, he pursuades Kumar to drive him to the airport to fulfill his promise to Jill. Kumar doesn't understand this sudden resolve;
KUMAR: Why do you have to leave now? You can stay and write all the stories you want.
And Hamilton offers no response, except to put on his shirt and pick up his shoulder bag. In the background, we see Billy Kwan's Bible on an empty shelf.
KUMAR: I hope to catch a plane is worth losing your eye.
So what's the resolution of it all? That final answers – political, moral, relational, spiritual – are water from the moon, "something one cannot ever have"? Are the forces of darkness and light, of left and right, in endless balance? Is the western idea wrong, that "everything is right or wrong, good or bad"? Is nothing ultimately good or bad? Or is it only that not everything can be summed up easily?
I don't know. Like many works of art, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY raises complex, important questions but refuses to provide us the answers. I don't know "what the film is saying," or if it is saying anything. Maybe it's only asking.
But I do know that I am left with the indelible picture of Billy Kwan. A passionate, flawed man, hungry to find spiritual reality and to extend human mercy. He sought to serve God, to awaken others to God and to spiritual realities. In the process, he was tempted to play God, began to think of himself as a god, and yielding to that unacknowledged temptation cost him what he most craved; trust, partnership, friendship. Confronted with that fact, grieved by the impossibility of making things work as he wished them to be, he gave himself up to death, and in so doing found that the things he sought were accomplished.
One writer comments that THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY loses its way toward the end. This isn't every viewer's experience, and I wonder if this has to do with how much weight different audience members give to different aspects of the story. Neither the love story nor the final proving of Guy Hamilton's character are ultimately resolved until the final image of the film: even once Guy has made his choice to leave "the stories" behind and keep his promise to meet Jill on the plane, the six minutes remaining until that final moment are filled with danger and momentum, as the journalist and his driver make their way through a city in the grips of violence, past columns of military vehicles and road-side executions, through check points and ultimately the chaos of a third world, military-controlled airport as hundreds struggle to catch the last planes out of Jakarta.
Still, as high as the stakes are, as skilful as the story-telling and editing may be, as much as we yearn for Hamilton to succeed once he's made his choice to put human relationship and a promise above his career and his "addiction to risk," there's a sense in which he is simply living out what Billy Kwan had hoped for him. And Billy is gone from the story. And with him, for some viewers, the real heart of the film.
The fundamental question every script writer must ask – and is constantly asked during the process of writing – is, Who is the main character? Whose story is this? Because once that character's journey is resolved, the movie is over. You'd better tie up all the other story lines first, because once we know if the "throughline character" succeeds at getting what they need, every person in the theatre senses the show is over and it's time to head for the parkade.
Two questions help decide whose story THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY might be: Who do we care most about? And who drives the action forward? The answer to first question can be very subjective, a judgement call – some audience members may find the story of Guy Hamilton's gradual awakening gets their sympathies most, while others are most drawn to the powerful love story - but for my money, it's Billy Kwan who grabs hold, in all his mystery, yearning, and idealism. The answer to the second question is usually much clearer – and in this movie, for all Guy Hamilton's initiative and relentless drive, it's Billy Kwan who moves the events of the story forward. In John Hanrahan's biography of Mel Gibson, the actor notes that, while " my face had to be in it, from the first to the last frame." Indeed, his picture is on every poster – alone, or with his romantic opposite, Sigourney Weaver. Their names are above the title. The tagline – "A love caught in the fire of revolution" – tells us whose story the marketers think we'll want to see. And truly, the film charts the journey of Gibson's character from his arrival at the Jakarta airport, his first overseas posting, to his desperate departure from that same airport, a changed man, tape recorder abandoned like a shed skin.
But Gibson goes on to comment that portraying the character presented him with a challenge "because Hamilton never initiated anything.... He really is a reactor: he reacts to all these things done to him." For all his star appeal, and for all the character's essential energy and drive, it isn't "his movie."
But Peter Weir points to the story's real centre in an interview he gave to the Directors Guild of America when he said "the Billy Kwan character was the great creation of the novelist. Being half-Asian, half-Caucasian, he had a kind of understanding of both worlds yet belonged to neither...." It is Billy's hopes for the characters that we come to share: it is Billy who manipulates circumstances to challenge Hamilton's careerism and western materialism, who engineers the romance between Guy and Jill, and whose final act ultimately leads to Guy's change of heart.
Structurally, on the page, Billy Kwan is the film's central character. It is at least as important to consider, though, how it plays out on the screen. How do the performances of the actors shape our perception? Who draws our focus?
One of the film's great successes was the casting of its two romantic leads. Gibson's biggest role to date had been in Weir's GALLIPOLI, a powerful performance in a powerful, beautifully crafted film – but that film was not a mainstream, commercial film, and Gibson wasn't yet the star he was to become, in part because of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Sigourney Weaver had played Ripley in ALIEN, so she was well known, but that looks bigger in hindsight than it was: the franchise hadn't been established yet, and in that initial film – the first in what ended up being a series with Weaver as the star – the emergent heroism of her character was almost a gag: "quote from Weaver interview." Weir's new movie was blessed by the potent screen presence and smouldering chemistry of two soon-to-be-stars stepping together into the spotlight.
Nevertheless, it is Linda Hunt – unnamed even now on the front of the DVD package, her picture not included on the cover of the edition of the novel released to coincide with the film – who won critical accolades and an Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan. Partly, of course, in recognition of the extraordinary accomplishment, a woman playing a man's role. But anyone who might wonder if the kudos were due to the novelty of the stunt rather than real artistic accomplishment will forget that qualm once the movie has been viewed. This is a magnificent performance of an unforgettable and utterly original character, filled with passion, restraint, feeling and intelligence. She incarnates all the "opposite intensities" of this wise child: strength and vulnerability, insight and delusion, experience and naivete, self-deification and self-sacrifice.
Peter Weir's films are films about Mystery, about spiritual and human questions without simple definitive answers. In the Wayang shadow play, its eternal balance of light and darkness and its testimony to things unseen, he finds a central metaphor for these supernatural probings. And in Billy Kwan he finds a remarkable embodiment of these contradictions, and of this spiritual yearning, an unforgettable centre for one of his finest films.
THE QUIET AMERICAN