Category Archives: PKI

The Year of Living Dangerously

Mel Gibson and film “The Year of Living Dangerously”, scenes of post-colonial decay and regret at Puncak.

This post is the third of four 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:

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To be continued:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia” (coming soon)

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Report from East Java

An excerpt from ‘Report from East Java’ detailing examples of ‘crushing actions’ in 1965.

A particularly striking part of “Report from East Java”, which was written by a military intelligence officer in November 1965, where he details the progress of the “crushing actions” against the Communist Party:

In Kediri some of the killings were “joint action”s [E] with the military (sometimes in civiele [D: civilian dress], sometimes officially as military). Killings of this kind may have a boomerang effect, in that they can also be utilized by the PKI itself. The effect upon economic life will also be felt. Small traders are now afraid to sell their wares. Peasant farmers are afraid to go to the rice fields. And many do not want to work on the Plantations, for example on the
tea and sugar plantations, because corpses are spread everywhere.

By way of clarification, several events are explained below: In the Paree (Kediri) area there is a village in which the lurah [village headman] and Ansor together took the initiative to protect the [PKI] peasant farmers—who were only taggers-on—by giving them badges as members of Ansor or NU. They were gathered together, and coincidentally, there happened to be an operation by the military and Ansor going on. Seeing many people gathered together, the soldiers and Ansor asked the lurah who all these people were. The lurah, nervous and panicked, responded that they were PKI.

Before he had finished speaking, every one of the approximately 300 people was killed, and their families were not permitted to remove their bodies so that they were buried where they lay. This shocked the people, and within Ansor itself mutual mistrust arose.

Another event occurred in Wates, where approximately 10,000 members of the PKI and its Mass Organizations gathered together. They were going to make a “long-march” [E] to Madiun, destroying factories along the way.

This was discovered by the military, which initiated a “joint-action” [E] together with Ansor. When they were sommeer [sic] [D: called upon] to surrender they refused, and so they were crushed. The victims totaled 1,200.

In an incident in Ponggok, a soldier who was disseminating information was killed by the Pemuda Rakyat [People’s Youth]. In represaille [D: reprisal] the military attacked, killing about 300 people.

The wave of killings is still continuing, and many of those who are being killed are followers who did not know much. Many excesses have emerged, and it could happen that the PKI will join in so that they can attract “public opinion” [E] to their side.

The bolded bit I know off by heart now as it keeps coming into my head for some reason. The sting is in its tail, the last detail that they didn’t allow the families to recover the bodies, in the cultural-religious context it strikes as the most astonishing vicious spite; the dead people don’t know whether they get a proper burial or not, but it’s a kind of twisting of the knife in the people who are left.

No doubt many have seen it already, for those who haven’t the whole “Report”, which is fascinating, can be read here.

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