In 1965, Indonesia is embroiled in a civil war between President Sukarno’s government and communist revolutionaries. Amidst the country’s social and political unrest, newly arrived Australian correspondent Guy Hamilton wanders aimlessly until he meets the enigmatic freelance cameraman and photographer Billy Kwan. When a piece of highly classified information is told in confidence to him, Hamilton must decide which is more important - the trust of his friends or the story of his career.
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An audacious casting decision by internationally respected director Peter Weir resulted in The Year of Living Dangerously achieving a special place in Oscar history. When Linda Hunt (Billy Kwan) received the Best Supporting Actress award she was the first and remains the only actor to win it for portraying the opposite gender.
“One of the most interesting things and perhaps difficult aspects for everyone was that once you knew her as Linda there was no way you could think of her as anything but as a woman.” stated Babette Smith, the movie’s location publicist. “That gives you some idea on how good her performance was.”
While Mel Gibson (Guy Hamilton) was immediately able to strike up a friendship with Hunt, his relationship with Sigourney Weaver, who plays British embassy officer and Hamilton’s love interest Jill Bryant, did not develop so readily.
“Mel had a more matter-of-fact, seemingly casual approach,” recalled Smith. “Whereas the American style [Weaver] was evidently one of great thought processes and preparation.” The rapport between the two actors became more relaxed during the shooting of the rain sequence when they flee to the safety of Mel Gibson’s car. Once inside, the drenched Gibson comically puts on Weaver’s soggy straw hat and asks her how it looks resulting in both of them getting a serious case of the giggles.
At a poolside gathering Kwan introduces his new found friend to a fetching female associate, Jill Bryant, and a romance is born. Hamilton becomes uncomfortable with his partnership with the freelance cameraman when he discovers that the “strange little man” has a file on him and many others. Kwan fancies himself to be a puppet master with the ability to manipulate the lives and relationships of his friends. He also has great faith in the ability of Indonesian president Sukarno to become a beacon of hope amongst the prevailing squalor.
Out of concern for Hamilton’s safety, Bryant confides in him that the British Embassy has received classified information that Chinese communists have secretly sent arms to the PKI in preparation for an imminent coup. Hamilton betrays his lover’s trust by seeking confirmation that the weapons have already arrived in Jakarta.
Billy Kwan’s perfectly crafted world crumbles entirely when the child of a single mother, whom he has adopted, dies due to illness. Driven by his grief, he hangs a protest banner outside a hotel window as Sukarno arrives to make a speech. Hamilton watches in horror as Kwan tumbles to his death aided by the government security forces who storm the room. The nation is on the eve of a revolution.
To ensure the success of revolt, Hamilton’s assistant and PKI sympathizer, Kumar drugs his boss to prevent the arms shipment from being discovered. The attempted overthrow by the communist forces fails and the country’s military led by General Suharto takes control of the government. Dissidents are lined up for roadside executions. Aided by Kumar, Hamilton joins the mass exodus of Westerners which sees him reunited with Bryant.
Half-way through the location shoots in Manila, anonymous death threats were received by crew members, Weir, and producer Jim McElroy. The movie production was apparently viewed by some in the Philippines to be imperialist and anti-Muslim. Despite White House assurances that they were safe, Peter Weir decided to complete the principal photography back home in Australia.
In spite of the upheaval, filming recommenced in Sydney as if nothing had happened. “Amazingly, it [the shift to Australia] had no evident effect on Mel.” remarked Jim McElroy. “He was right back into character when we restarted.”
Upon release, the film was immediately banned by Indonesian dictator Suharto for its uncompromising depiction of his brutal rise to power. On November 6, 2000, two years after the removal of Suharto, The Year of Living Dangerously was finally shown in that country.