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Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously

This post is the third of five in a series.
The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”
The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The Year of Living Dangerously (movie poster)
Movie Poster

In the middle of Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously, a war romance set in 1965 Indonesia, there is a five minute scene set in Puncak, the mountain resort area just a few hours outside of Jakarta. A young pre-asshole Mel Gibson portrays a naive but ambitious Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton. After he has ruffled feathers in the diplomatic community, pissed off his girlfriend and his photographer, and put himself into danger all for the sake of an espionage scoop, Guy’s only reliable ally left in Indonesia is his driver-assistant Kumar (Filipino actor Bembol Roco). While driving through Puncak Pass, Kumar insists they stop for a late afternoon rest at an old Dutch villa. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the scene in its entirety on youtube)

Tiger Lily stands in the door of the old Dutch villa (screenshot from The Year of Living Dangerously)
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily is a Friend
Screen Shot:  Old Java Now
Screen Shot: Old Java Now
Screen Shot:  Verboden
Screen Shot: Verboden
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily Dives In
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily Dives In

Set against magnificent mountain scenery, the villa itself is dusty and dilapidated, surrounded by dry overgrown weeds. The paint has peeled from the shutters and doors, and the walls are faded and blotchy with cracked plaster patches. Kumar keeps his eyes on Guy who, suddenly suspicious, takes a cautious sip of the cold drink that has just been served. Kumar then leaves him on the terrace: “I’ll see you after siesta… You’re in Old Java now, boss.” Guy looks over to the derelict swimming pool, and Tiger Lily, Kumar’s gorgeous colleague (played by Filipina pop diva Kuh Ledesma), is wearing a bathing suit and standing at the pool’s edge, using an old Dutch sign with the word “Verboden” (forbidden, prohibition, taboo) written on it to gently skim dead leaves off the water. The camera pans out, revealing the entire pool and a backdrop of mountains… Tiger Lily has cleared just enough space from the pool’s littered surface to dive in to what otherwise appears to be filthy water. The contrast between natural and feminine beauty on the one hand, faded and filthy disrepair on the other, is unsettling. When Tiger Lily dives into the pool, we have entered Mary Douglas territory, mixing symbols of purity and danger, pollution and taboo. Guy’s ordinarily helpful assistants in Jakarta, Kumar and Tiger Lily, are suddenly suspect and mysterious, maybe not so trustworthy, in the lonely isolation (for Guy) of “Old Java Now.”

Guy takes his siesta in a guest room so dark and stuffy we can almost smell the rank musty air trapped in the room with him while his body perspires completely. In a potentially erotic dream that turns into a terrifying nightmare, Tiger Lily drowns Guy in the dirty water of the old swimming pool. He wakes up seized with horror, and understands that Kumar and Tiger Lily are actually undercover members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), perhaps collecting intelligence on Guy for the party, which may (or may not) be plotting a coup against the Indonesian army in order to take over Soekarno’s government. When Guy confronts him, Kumar does not deny it, but it turns out that he brought Guy up to Puncak in order to safely warn him to stop investigating rumors about an incoming arms shipment, because Guy’s name is already on the PKI’s hit list.

What a terrific idea it was for the screenwriters to stage this revelation amidst colonial ruins, where traces of “Old Java now” create an uncanny atmosphere of creepy horror for the likes of Guy Hamilton. Removed from his familiar clique of expatriate journalists and diplomats in Jakarta, where they socialize in the safe spaces of five-star hotel bars, embassy formals, and social clubs, Guy is suddenly vulnerable up in Puncak, in an old Dutch villa that ironically now serves as a safe space for PKI operatives. The broken remains of Dutch empire, at least 25 years old in 1965 Indonesia, ought to remind Guy and his expatriate friends in Jakarta of what’s at stake if war breaks out. If PKI were to stage a successful coup, their lavish modern lifestyles in Jakarta would surely meet the same fate as this formerly grand old villa at the top of a mountain. [To clarify, the depiction of 1965 Indonesia historical events in The Year of Living Dangerously is generously revised at best, but I’m writing here within parameters set by the story.]

The original novel and the subsequent film were written, directed and produced by Australians. Their story focuses on expatriate journalists and diplomats (mostly Australian and British) in Jakarta; Kumar and Tiger Lily are minor characters. As such, our view of Indonesia in this story is from the privileged expatriate perspective, and that includes our view of the spooky old Dutch villa up in the enchanted Puncak highlands. We’re spooked because the villa in disrepair reminds postcolonial expatriates about what they have lost. From their perspective, postcolonial Indonesians have mismanaged their inheritance, letting a magnificent house fall into such ugly (and, by way of Guy’s nightmare, potentially deadly) disrepair.

Apart from some stylized wayang metaphors, an artifice used only to elevate the expatriate heroes and their epic dilemmas, we don’t get much Indonesian perspective in The Year of Living Dangerously. The best we get is from Kumar, still at the villa, when he explains his involvement in the PKI to Guy:  “My country suffers under a great weight of poverty and corruption. Is it wrong to want to change that?” We also learn from Tiger Lily that Kumar’s family business suffers under extortion pressure from the military. And yet there are thousands of “Indonesians” (it was filmed in the Philippines) portrayed throughout the film:  in markets, riots, slums, airports, bars, red light districts, and even at the old Dutch villa where there appears to be a complete household staff. But just as historical events are merely a backdrop, so too are these Indonesian extras in the film. They’re just part of the chaotic postcolonial scenery.

Screen Shot:  Part of the Scenery
Screen Shot: Part of the Scenery

The sublime and ominous qualities of the old Dutch villa depend on keeping the Indonesian people that live and work there silent and in the background. If we learn any details about how Tiger Lily, Kumar and Tiger Lily’s “friend” (the owner) use the villa and support the household staff who maintain it, much less about the staff themselves and the neighbors who pass their days there, then the enchanting spell that surrounds the villa ends because it is no longer a ruin of the past. Instead it becomes a living testament to the present, almost certainly with another kind of history that Guy and his gang would prefer not to acknowledge. Guy’s eerie discomfort rests upon this lack of acknowledgement, the suppression of history, sedimented as remnant traces in the crumbling architecture.

The Puncak scene from The Year of Living Dangerously in its entirety begins at 1:13:


.

To be continued:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

15 replies on “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

I don’t think it’s altogether fair to say that the movie or the book looks at Indonesia entirely from an expat perspective given that a key sub plot, indeed the denouement of the movie, is Billy Kwan’s relationship with an Indonesian woman and her sick son.

Indeed if anything Kwan, with his perceptive analysis, comes across as the only fully rounded character as opposed to the expats who seem strangely colourless and rather cardboard by comparison (in the film version anyway).

I read the book years ago so I can’t speak for the text, but in the film I thought Billy Kwan was Australian, and described as half-Australian, half-Chinese. Clearly Billy is the moral center of the film, no doubt about that, and he has done his due diligence on matters of Indonesian society (he develops the wayang metaphor for the other characters in the film and fancies himself the dalang or perhaps a wise Semar-like clown, plus he visits the woman with her sick son, loved Sukarno but then felt betrayed by him, etc.), but I have always thought of him as one of the ex-pats. If I’m mistaken and Billy was in fact an Indonesian citizen, then his heritage makes him rather exceptional and privileged, and the ex-pat community was definitely his “scene.” The Indonesian woman he helps doesn’t have any lines of her own (if I recall correctly); the death of her son fuels Billy’s own climactic demise.

Great stuff, as were the earlier episodes.
Care to discuss why it is that “ruins” seem to invite the vandal’s urge? In abandoned buildings the world over you find evidence of people having helped the decay on its way – windows kicked in, fires started, graffiti scrawled.
Why? What are they reacting against (or in tandem with)?

that’s a cool question. I guess I would think of the vandal’s urge as an effort to get “out with the old,” hasten the process along. In settings of conflict, perhaps a unique sub-set of ruins, retreat is accompanied by vandalism… the Iraqis left shit all over Kuwaiti homes when they retreated (1st gulf war). The TNI left East Timor with a scorched earth policy. Old military posts in Aceh, which were typically once the homes of local families or govt clinics/schools and even some old pesantren etc., are covered with their graffiti too. Many communities destroyed these posts, cursed sites of torture and sexual violence, in a good riddance gesture after they left. Those are damn spooky places to visit, and I’ve got a bunch of pictures from Aceh like that up on my flickr page (but can’t remember what the appropriate search term/tag you should use to find them, but “conflict” + “Aceh” are good ones to start with). But more generally, the vandal’s urge might also be to emphasize or heighten the taboo or “verboden” status of abandoned buildings. A kind of boundary mark or seal to keep others away.

kopyor,
The vandalism that accompanies a military retreat is, I feel, at least in part a separate phenomenon, and actually one that’s far more explicable (I’ve seen a few such places myself too, and they are indeed disturbing).

But the prompt for the vandalism provided by a ruin (in the early stages of ruination – I’ll come on to that in a minute), seems to be something a little different, and certainly harder to explain.
I know that I for one, aged about 13, wandering around the vicinity of the village where I grew up (an area studded with ruins stretching from the iron age to the very, very recent industrial past) with a gang of mates, once engaged in an outburst of window-smashing and cupboard kicking in an old house up an overgrown lane.
It wasn’t in any way planned; we just happened on the place; as far as I can remember it was totally spontaneous, and I’m still at a loss to explain why we did it today.
What I do know, however, is that the reaction is a common one that seems to stretch across very many cultures. Put a fresh “ruin” just about anywhere in the world, and if the local kids find it, chances are they’ll smash it up. I certainly feel that whatever makes them do so is something more atavistic and far less rational (yes, I do mean that) than the often semi-systematic vandalism carried out by those retreating from a zone of conflict.
I get a vague sense too, that it is less an attack or an act of hostility against the “ruin”, than a strange, unsettling sort of embracing of whatever it is that ruins mean to us…

Stages of ruination: at some point in their decay, ruins seem to pass beyond the point where they set off the vandal’s urge. Why, again I don’t know (because they cease being threatening? Because they become venerable? Because there are simply no more windows left to smash?). I’m quite certain that 13-year-old me and my mates would not have experienced so much as a flicker of that vandal’s urge at the Iron Age hut circles nearby, and while we would probably have tossed a few stones through the windows of the corrugated asbestos-walled stamp-sheds of the very recently closed mine, we would never have attacked the stonework of the 18th and 19th century engine houses of the earlier workings. Why, though, I don’t know…

On TYOLD,
Billy Kwan is certainly the most significant and interesting character of both the book and the film, and far more interesting than the notional “hero”, Hamilton (or the authorial “I” in the book – it’s an interesting, and in this case very successful device, to use a first-person narrative for a book in which the narrator plays no significant role whatsoever).

Kwan is indeed half-Chinese, half-Australian, and as far as I can remember he himself believes that that gives him some access and insight to the Indonesians which the other expat journalists don’t have. One could, of course, cough disapprovingly over the suggestion (from a “Western” author, remember) that being half-Chinese (and not Chinese-Indonesian, mind) would give you some innate “connection” with Indonesians, but I spend so much time strapping the carcass of Edward Said to a nearly dead horse and flogging the pair of them up a mountain, that I’ll resist this once ;-).

I think Kwan’s role – both as he views it, and as we are supposed to view it – is of some kind of go-between (and in the book, as far as I can remember, the dwarf-wayang thing, the Semar connection, is spelt out overtly).

However, I agree with kopyor about the role of the Indonesians in the story (book/film).
The woman with the sick child is not a character. Not only does she have no lines; she doesn’t even have a name (she is referred to only as “Ibu”, by both Kwan directly, and in the rest of the text). She functions not as a character but as a cipher for the wider sufferings of massed Indonesian society (both as a literary device, and in Kwan’s own eyes – that’s actually one of the interesting things about the book, the way Koch does that, conflating obvious literary devices and symbolism with the voiced ideas of one of his characters).

The other Indonesians are generally positioned quite overtly as being beyond some kind of unbridgeable threshold (which only Kwan – perhaps – can straddle). One of the memorable scenes in the book, which they don’t properly reproduce in the film, is at an expat party where two young local “friends” of the aging homosexual journalist (whose name I’ve forgotten) are present, and are painted in the text as wildly exotic figures, vaguely Hindu, with long hair and bluish skin, an unsettling presence to the milling expats – the absolute Other…
“Ibu”, nameless and faceless, the prostitutes, the creaking, birdlike becak drivers, even Sukarno himself (who the book portrays wonderfully, as a sort of “entity”, burst free of the confines of a “man”) – they’re all like that in the book.
Now, normally that’s the kind of thing I spend time deconstructing with extreme prejudice (see – a “ruin”, an ideological one, prompting the vandal’s urge!), but I think in TYOLD it’s deliberate. Koch (and the subsequent filmmakers) wants the Indonesians to be that way, to create that gap for Kwan to attempt to straddle (not that there aren’t still problems with the idea, but doing it consciously, I think, is a lesser crime, especially if it has a literary purpose).

The scene at the old villa, described above, is crucial to this – it intends consciously, I think, to highlight this mass of stuff moving beyond Hamilton’s (and the other expats’) ken, and to make it clear that they are the ones out of their depth – “you’re in old Java now”…

Ah, Kopyor, thanks for this post and this oppertunity to blether on ridiculously in this fashion! 😉
(and if anyone would care to, I’d be delighted to connect from TYOLD to one of its obvious influences, The Quiet American, which I absolutely love, despite its rather distasteful central metaphor)…

“Apart from some stylized wayang metaphors, an artifice used only to elevate the expatriate heroes and their epic dilemmas, we don’t get much Indonesian perspective in The Year of Living Dangerously.”

I would like to add to Timdog’s subtle and plausible comment that this kind of objection has also been raised against a novel that won the Booker Prize (the second time for this particular author), substantially contributed to a Nobel Prize and, in addition, was named , in a 2006 Observer poll of literary worthies, the best “British, Irish or Commonwealth novel” of the last twenty five years: I am referring to Coetzee’s “Disgrace”.

It was said, in a certain quarter, that the African figures in it don’t have any depth. The comment seems to me inspired by extra-literary motives. First of all, there is only one African in it, Petrus, who plays a role that conceivably would have lent itself to “depth” were it not that this would have detracted from the “depth” with which the main protagonists (from whose point of view the story is told) are portrayed. It is essential to understand them, their reaction to a certain situation (that of “whites” in post- apartheid South Africa) that they are depicted as not quite understanding him. They too are out of their depth – not in “old Java” but in new South Africa

I stand corrected on Billy Kwan’s expat status. I simply took it for granted when he was referred to as “half-Chinese” that it referred to Indonesian Chinese.

timdog said

“But the prompt for the vandalism provided by a ruin (in the early stages of ruination – I’ll come on to that in a minute), seems to be something a little different, and certainly harder to explain.
I know that I for one, aged about 13, wandering around the vicinity of the village where I grew up (an area studded with ruins stretching from the iron age to the very, very recent industrial past) with a gang of mates, once engaged in an outburst of window-smashing and cupboard kicking in an old house up an overgrown lane.
It wasn’t in any way planned; we just happened on the place; as far as I can remember it was totally spontaneous, and I’m still at a loss to explain why we did it today.”

It’s all about power.
What’s the use in beating a skeleton? It’s much more fun to destroy something that still resembles what it was alive but probably can’t kick back. And who knows there might be still a spark of life in it.

I’m not sure about that, ET. What you say works perfectly well as an explanation of why you wouldn’t NOT go on the rampage in a ruin, but it doesn’t quite convince as an explanation of what would prompt you to do so in the first place.

It’s something I find genuinely intriguing, and which I don’t have a developed theory about, but how about this one:

A fresh ruin represents to us a collapse of order. That’s why ruins, like the one at Puncak described in the above post, are so unsettling and unnerving. Those roads are supposed to be clean and plied by cars; those creeping weeds are supposed to be cut back, the switches are supposed to produce a blaze of electric light when you flick them, the taps a gush of clear water. The doors should be neatly closed; there should be furniture in the rooms and families sitting down to dinner.
The fact that things are NOT like that makes it obvious that something has gone horribly wrong here; ORDER has collapsed.

And it’s pretty well attested that when order collapses mankind has a terrifying capacity for going berserk. So on a small scale, when a bunch of kids happen upon an abandoned house from which the inhabitants have gone, where the doors are unlocked and the electricity disconnected, from which ORDER has vanished, that same atavistic urge to go on the rampage is triggered.
(This would also explain why older ruins don’t prompt this – they are so far gone that they no longer generate that unsettling, mayhem-prompting sense of a recent collapse of order).

That’s only a theory, and a new one, one which I haven’t worked through fully yet. But I definitely think there’s something unusual about the vandalism prompted by fresh ruins, something which more general ideas about “power” don’t entirely explain. As I said before, I feel it’s something more primal, more atavistic…

Arie,
I actually haven’t read Disgrace, but I do remember some of the criticism, and imagine that it was, as you suggest, wildly wrong-headed.
As I argued above, I don’t think TYOLD gets total absolution (while, my instinct, without reading it, would be that Disgrace more likely does), but to complain about its lack of Indonesian perspectives is to be churlish, and rather to miss the point. To demand the insertion of token fully-rounded Indonesian (or African, in teh other case) characters would be to destroy the entire literary basis of the thing and the construction of its characters…

@ timdog

“And it’s pretty well attested that when order collapses mankind has a terrifying capacity for going berserk. So on a small scale, when a bunch of kids happen upon an abandoned house from which the inhabitants have gone, where the doors are unlocked and the electricity disconnected, from which ORDER has vanished, that same atavistic urge to go on the rampage is triggered.”

When ORDER has vanished LAWLESSNESS sets in and POWER becomes unrestricted. The same thing happens during the transitional power vacuum after a war. The Partition of India and Pakistan is also characteristic of this. Not the ruins and decomposed carcasses but what’s left weak and unprotected becomes the victim of this phenomenon known as ‘power reversal’. Not destruction but signs of weakness and abandonment trigger the urge to abuse. It’s one of the darker aspects of the psyche and probably serves to get rid of what is considered unproductive and overdue.

” The same thing happens during the transitional power vacuum after a war. The Partition of India and Pakistan is also characteristic of this. Not the ruins and decomposed carcasses but what’s left weak and unprotected becomes the victim of this phenomenon known as ‘power reversal’. Not destruction but signs of weakness and abandonment trigger the urge to abuse.”

There is an example nearer to hand:

“Masa bersiap (Bersiap-tijd) merupakan suatu masa yang relatif pendek dalam perjalanan sejarah bangsa Indonesia, yaitu sekitar empat bulan terhitung sejak Jepang menyerah tanpa syarat kepada pihak Sekutu. Masa ini merupakan periode yang sangat kritis dan menentukan, yang digambarkan sebagai periode yang kacau, sarat dengan berbagai tindakan kekerasan, penjarahan, bahkan pembunuhan massal. Hal itu terjadi karena kosongnya kekuasaan (vacum of power) sehingga tidak ada yang mampu mengontrol keadaan. Pada waktu itu pemerintah lama (Jepang) telah runtuh, sementara pemerintahan baru (Republik Indonesia) masih sangat lemah.

Dr. Lambert Giebels, penulis buku “Soekarno, 1901-1950″ dalam sebuah wawancara dengan wartawan Tempo menilai bahwa revolusi Indonesia tak lepas dari berbagai anarkisme. Dr. Lambert Giebels menceritakan betapa banyak massa pemuda di saat revolusi melakukan serangkaian tindak kriminal seperti menjarah, memerkosa perempuan, serta membunuh dengan darah dingin. Misalnya peristiwa 10 November di Surabaya. Banyak perempuan Belanda, Indo, dan keturunan Cina diperkosa dan dibunuh massa. ”

“signs of weakness”: these women and children had just been released from Japanese camps.

Hi Kopyor,

Another interesting angle that is worth considering is how the film “The Year Of Living Dangerously” wasn’t made in Indonesia

Actually, it was shot in the Philippines (with interior shots in Sydney), hence the Filipino supporting cast. It was banned in Indonesia until 2000, when President Wahid allowed it to be shown at the Jakarta Film Festival. An edited version – minus e.g. bits critical of Soekarno – was broadcast on TV in 2005.

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