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Guy Hamilton is a journalist on his first job as a foreign correspondent. His apparently humdrum assignment to Indonesia soon turns hot as President Sukarno electrifies the populace and frightens foreign powers. Guy soon is the hottest reporter on the story with the help of his photographer, half- Chinese dwarf Billy Kwan, who has gone native. Guy's affair with diplomat Jill Bryant also helps. Eventually Guy must face some major moral choices and the relationship between Billy and him reaches a crisis at the same time the politics of Indonesia does. Written by
Peter Weir's movie, set in Sukarno's Indonesia in 1965, can be seen as four films in one. The first is socio-political, focusing on the plight of the impoverished Indonesian people, the impending insurrection by the communist movement, and the bloody, chaotic aftermath of the coup. The second, coloured in Graham Greene-ish tones, has a cast of western journalists and diplomats failing to make sense of what's happening around them, and falling back on sex, drink and cynicism. The third - and most important in commercial-cinema terms - is a convincingly acted romance between rookie foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) and British diplomat Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), culminating in an unlikely and sentimental ending to the film.
But it is the fourth of these "sub-movies" which is the most intriguing; this concerns the diminutive and enigmatic Australian/Chinese photographer Billy Kwan, an astonishing - and Oscar winning - portrayal by actress Linda Hunt. Billy sees himself as a puppet-master, pulling the strings of friends and colleagues, particularly of Jill and Guy, whom he throws together. But his need to take control also motivates him to help local people, not through indirect and political means, but directly like an early Christian, and this apparently benign course leads to tragedy. Billy is the true heart and conscience of this film.
Weir is not entirely successful in weaving these strands together, and leaves a few gaps in both plot and characterisation. He is also occasionally guilty of melodrama (a fault which, in the movie, Jill warns Guy about), especially in the film's closing scenes - though certainly not where he shows communist sympathisers being shot, which is factual. On the whole, however, the movie works on both commercial and artistic levels, and should be seen.
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