YD: Commentary & Article

Sample Commentary on Poverty in Year

Feed Your People

The gap between rich and poor is important in terms of the setting and the political rhetoric of Sukarno (who rails against the wealthy West and aligns himself with the Communist Party) and also in terms of the more personal dilemmas of Billy, Kumar, and Hamilton. 

While Hamilton isn't at first bothered by questions of economic disparity, he's soon thrust into a Third World setting brimming with poverty and anger. He stays at the five-star Hotel Indonesia, which is described as a luxury liner floating through the darkness of the city below it (14). His first night in Jakarta he and Billy wander out from the Hotel -- and the refuge of the Wayang Bar, with its puppets on the walls sneering at the noisy Westerners (13) -- and into the poverty and metaphoric darkness of the city.  Billy asks Hamilton if this poverty makes him want to do something, and Hamilton responds that it's up to Sukarno to fix the problem (19). This leads us to gauge the gap between Sukarno’s rhetoric (which Billy accepts initially) and reality (which Billy sees all too clearly in the end). Sukarno's accused (especially by Wally) of making speeches and building monuments when what his people need is rice and clean water. Billy gradually becomes disenchanted with Sukarno, especially when Udin dies in Ibu’s slum, presumably from unclean water (225-6). Billy becomes increasingly desperate, and eventually risks his life by putting up a sign with a direct, simple message: "SUKARNO, FEED YOUR PEOPLE" (234).

While Billy sinks into despair and near-suicidal action, Kumar acts secretly to change the economic order of the country. His membership in the Communist Party is suspected early in the novel (33, 61), yet it isn't treated in a simplistic manner by Koch. Instead of being the cold-hearted, single-minded Cold Warrior of the James Bond novels (which were popular at the time), Kumar is a compassionate, intelligent man who articulates his concerns effectively to Hamilton. And instead of being a bitter anti-colonialist, Kumar befriends and protects Hamilton, and he dreams of sitting in a café in Europe -- even though he knows this is impossible: he calls it "water from the moon" (153).  A conservative Australian, Hamilton disagrees with Kumar's conclusions about the need for communist revolution. Yet he's still bothered by Kumar’s complaint that intelligent people in poor countries live in poverty while stupid people in rich countries live in comfort (271). 

At the end of the novel, Hamilton is metaphorically blinded. This may signify that he can't see into the puppet mastery that leads from Sukarno to Suharto. It may also symbolize his lack of insight --not into the problem, but rather into the solution to poverty and the desperate violence it breeds.


Following is an excerpt from Rodney Farnsworth's "An Australian Cultural Synthesis: Wayang, the Hollywood Romance and The Year of Living Dangerously" (Literary Film Quarterly 1996, Vol. 24 Issue 4). 

Shared myths and parallel modes of presentation are crucial pivot points for Koch. With Indonesians, he observes, Australians share a past filled with the multi-heritage that paradoxically comes from colonization--which is certainly not to suggest that being colonized can be seen as a positive experience, but merely that its ramifications can be useful in making intercultural connections. Koch seizes in particular on the legacy that the seventh-century Hindu colonists brought from India to Indonesia: "For example, the Mahahharata and Ramayana epics that are the basis of the Indonesian shadow play--the wayang kulit--are from the great storehouse of Indo-European myth; and that is part of our inheritance, as well as India's and Indonesia's" ("Australian" 74). It is the common inheritance embodied in the wayang kulit that gives coherence and resonance to the private and political plot-threads of Koch's novel, but especially of [Peter] Weir's film. Wayang, while it literally means shadow, broadly means any sort of theatrical performance, and the Indonesian terms for cinema are wayang gambar hidup (living picture theatre) and wayang gelap (dark theatre) (Holt 123 n). Wayang draws its stories from many sources that reflect, in microcosm, the multi-layered world of Indonesia--including not just the Hindu, but also the Ancient Javanese, perhaps Islamic and Dutch, layers. The stories are many and varied. Koch, using the same privilege he would extend to an Indonesian cultural "trading" partner, makes an artistic choice and centers on the repertory of plays that draws at the same time from the Ancient Javanese myth and from the Mahabharata--the Hindu sacred epic containing the Bhagavad Gita

With the wider narrative space his genre provides, Koch is able to employ the wayang imagery to take a wider political view than Weir. Each half of the wayang screen has its own significance in the mythic battles that are fought there--"the Wayang of the Right and the Wayang of the Left" (Koch, Year 205). Around this motif, Koch and Weir center the political threads of their narratives. The Year of Living Dangerously, set in Jakarta, takes place in 1965 when Indonesia was heading toward a confrontation between the Muslim Right and the Communist Left (the PKI), hoping for arms from China. Koch very subtly makes the multicultural point that Marxism is no less "Western" than European-type capitalism by having a character say that the PKI's attempt at revolution in the Indonesian capital is an out-of-place "class struggle invented for the cities of nineteenth-century Europe" (216). Whether one shams this limited view of Marxism (and I do not think either Koch himself or Weir does), it forces us to confront our quandary in the West over precisely what the "East" is: geographical or political? Koch drives the irony even deeper by describing a polarized Jakarta as a milieu poised between two opposing forces, like those of the Bhagavad Gita. In passages, he goes beyond what Weir can do: "The city lies inert in a hot brown twilight, which smells of petrol, frangipani, and fear. ... Sins wail, their long fingers searching the nerves" (53). Later, Koch reveals "all of dark, threadbare Java, moving towards its holocaust" (144). 

It should not be assumed that Weir's film ignores this vision; however, since the delicate political nature of the subject prevented his filming in Jakarta and necessitated Manila, he had to suggest the (situ)ation indirectly; he used instead political graffiti, scenes of rioting, and damage left in its aftermath. Weir understood that while a fictional narrative like film, with its time constraints, cannot be either a historical or a political dissertation, it can borrow motifs from both; he understood, too, that it is in the artist's special license to choose among political motifs, to internalize them, but also--paradoxically--to universalize them. This process of internalizing and universalizing is what saves the artist from what Edward Said has termed Orientalizing--turning the people of the East into an artistic or literary Other. If, however, the artist can make the Other first into a Thou, then into an I, and ultimately into a We, he has freed himself from the taint of neocolonizing the East into an Other. The way Weir achieves this is not only appropriate to the plot, it is an apotheosis of the two film media: he concentrates considerable camera-time on photographs Billy Kwan has made of Indonesia's poor. Weir thereby finds in poverty the common denominator of Indonesia's crisis and of his political motifs. In other words, it is on the people rather than the leaders that Weir focuses. 

In both the novel and the film, however, Sukarno[6] receives attention: he is "the great dalang" (134)--the puppet master of the wayang. Koch again makes use of the capabilities of his genre to probe the contradictions in Sukarno's regime. Koch ruthlessly juxtaposes the anti-Western rhetoric from Sukarno's speeches with descriptions of his Westernization of Jakarta through an air-conditioned hotel, a Western-style department store, freeways, and monuments "topped by ecstatically gesturing figures like ghosts from the Third Reich, or Stalin's Russia" (28). Koch also makes it clear that Sukarno proved himself a master politician who had been successfully staving off inevitable civil war between the Left and the Right. In viewing the actions of Sukarno before his fall, C.J. Koch's first-person narrator--who is interestingly named R.J. Cook and (as the author had been) is a journalist--feels that to make a commitment to one side or the other is to lose control and to become the controlled. Sukarno, when he evidences a clear bias to the Left, is harshly judged by the narrator (and perhaps by the author, too) because he thereby violates his ethos as the detached puppet-master of the wayang: "no one can pretend any more to be the dalang when he has become merely one of the puppets" (282). Weir has adapted the scene in the novel where Sukarno appears in the same room with a group of Western journalists. In the film, this moment is treated by having Sukarno, high on a balcony, either breakfasting or peering down over the balustrade, while the journalists are made to wait in the hot sun; at his beck and call they rush only to find the door leading to Sukarno is closed to them. Spatially, he becomes the Western-style puppeteer manipulating the reporters below. 

Sukarno is not the only puppet-master. Both the novelist and director make the dalang into a multifaceted symbol of broad applications. Within the narrative, Sukamo shares this symbol with another master of manipulation and control: Billy Kwan (played by American Linda Hunt), an Australian-Chinese who constantly peppers his language with English public school idioms; he is a self-styled "dwarf" who evidences considerable talent and insight as a cameraman, indeed, as a genuine photojournalist of what for him remains--in spite of his great sensitivity and insight--the foreign culture of Java, Indonesia.[7] Billy Kwan professionally aids the newly arrived journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson)--Australian-English in the novel, Australian-American in the film. Above all, Billy acts as a cultural mediator between Guy and Indonesia, making him see the real Jakarta, too often ignored by other journalists. Billy even plays Pander for Guy and arranges for him to fall in love with the woman the cameraman himself hopelessly loves, Jill Bryant (English, but played by American Sigourney Weaver). Billy, in short, colonizes Guy and Jill. Billy even becomes furiously indignant when his human puppet shows a free will to make wrong choices, and he tells Guy, "You slow idiot: I put you on course; I made you see things; I gave you the woman I loved. ... I created you!" (237). Billy also keeps files on people, which the narrator excerpts; thereby, the files constitute a secondary plot-line within the novel and--for the opening segments of the film--the primary narrative frame. In both versions, Billy asserts his dalang-ship when he writes material for these files: "Here, on the quiet page, I'm master--just as I'm master in the dark-room, stirring my prints in the magic developing-bath. And here, among my files, I can shuffle like cards the lives I deal with" (109). Through this passage and others like it, Koch affirms that authorship is control, a sort of providence, and that he is the dalang of his novel. Weir not only has his Billy speak these lines almost unchanged, but he also establishes a similar relation by his paralleling of the art of film to that of the wayang, beginning with the credit sequence. 

Koch and Weir achieve the delicate operation of making Billy gain resonance not only from the dalang analogy but also, like Guy and Jill, from characters within a wayang drama itself. When Billy is introducing Semar the Dwarf, the lines and Linda Hunt's delivery of them suggest Billy sees himself aiding Guy in the same way that Semar aids the hero Prince Arjuna. Partly based on the Krishna/Vishnu figure of the Bhagavad Gita, Semar--as the Billy of the novel observes--is also an incarnation of the chthonic deity of old Java, Ismaja, god of earthquakes, volcanos, and dwarfs; "My patron," adds Billy (83). Koch's narrator later describes Semar as "the god in mis-shapen form, whose breasts are female" (205). The dalang of the actual wayang introduces Semar with these words: "Semar may well be called mysterious. Designate him as a man, his face looks like a woman's; say that he is a woman, his appearance is that of a man" (qtd. in Holt 144). Weir's choice of a woman to play Billy Kwan links this character even more closely with this androgynous deity than has Koch. Similarly, if not to the same profound degree, do the characters Guy and Jill gain from their alter-personae in the wayang. Weir uses montage to emphasize these connections when Billy speaks to Guy about Prince Arjuna: he cuts back and forth from the puppet to the face of Guy, spending considerable film-time on the latter. Then, after introducing the puppet of Arjuna's beloved, Princess Srikandi, Guy notices a photograph of Jill--he and the audience are seeing her for the first time. In the very next scene, Guy and Jill are introduced to one another by Billy. 

Weir draws on his rich neo-expressionist vocabulary to link the characters of his film to their parallels in the wayang from the first shots, consisting of close-ups of the shadows of the puppets through the transparent screen. Several scenes later, Guy is seen back-lit, through a stairwell window, making a hand gesture reminiscent of the puppets of the opening sequence. In one scene, immediately after Billy engineers the meeting of the two lovers-to-be, he is shown with scissors, cutting around Guy's outline in a photograph, suggesting the silhouette of a wayang puppet; by this, Weir is giving a certain emphasis to an aspect of the film's underlying irony: compared to Billy, the two romantic leads--especially Guy--have a certain cut-out flatness; they are puppets acting out Billy's and the film audience's fantasy. Later, Billy is flipping through his file on Guy, and we see two photographs of Guy placed alongside two drawings of wayang puppets. Above all is the post-curfew night ride, where the kissing heads of Guy and Jill are backlit, In this shot, Weir transforms Weaver and Gibson through the medium of film--that universal wayang--into the ideal couple enacting the perfect romance in patterns of light and dark that move across the screen. 

While Koch does have his narrator describe Guy and Jill as "human shadows of universal wish" (104), only in Weir's filmic realization have their popular-romance elements at once been celebrated and transcended. Koch seems somewhat embarrassed by the figure of Jill: she is important to the novel only in the middle third and at the very end. The first-person narrator not only distances the reader from the Jill figure, but places emphasis on the male bonding among journalists in a bar called The Wayang. Koch has much of the emotional interaction play itself out in this bar where Western journalists huddle for comfort, amid a country in which hatred of foreigners is a political commonplace, and where they display professional jealousies. A considerably tighter film plot retains much of this journalistic side of the novel but largely foregrounds the Guy-Jill relationship. Weir's plot modifications suggest changes of influences.