Buffalo Boys (Mike Wiluan, 2018)

Buffalo Boys PortraitIndonesia is embracing the western in grand style. Following hot on the heals of Marlina the Murderer, Buffalo Boys picks up Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic genre and repurposes it to attack the thing that it ultimately stands for – colonialism, while also reasserting its perhaps more positive messages in the quests for honour, justice, and above all personal freedom. A tale of vengeance, Buffalo Boys makes unexpected revolutionaries of its two returnee heroes as they eventually come to realise that their personal quest must take second place to that of their nation as they attempt to liberate their people from the cruel oppression which has so directly affected the course of their own lives.

California, 1860. Brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) have been raised by their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), brought up in the precarious frontier environment since travelling to the New World as infants. After a shocking incident on a train leaves Arana injured, he realises it’s time to take the brothers back to their homeland to address the long buried past. Twenty years previously, Arana’s brother and the boys’ father, Hamza, was a Sultan who thought he could placate the Dutch colonisers by acquiescing to their demands, but was cruelly cut down by a vicious Captain, Van Trach, who executed him in cold blood. Arana fled with the children, leaving his wife behind and taking with him only the ancestral dagger to remind them of their legacy.

The boys have returned to avenge their father’s death by killing Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), but they find that things have only become worse in the twenty years they’ve been away. The Dutch are cruel masters who brand the native Indonesians like cattle, torturing those who won’t play along with their demands, and displaying the bodies of those deemed to have disobeyed their masters in the streets as examples to the others. The bodies which currently line the trees, belong to those who refused to clear their rice fields to grow opium poppies as the Dutch demanded, preferring to feed their families instead. Not content with beatings, torture, and executions Van Trach has now progressed to mass starvation which begs the question who he thinks will be tending to his poppies with half the population weakened through malnutrition.

As soon as the boys arrive they find themselves embroiled in a small conspiracy which leads them straight to Van Trach when they rescue the daughter of the local village head, Sri (Mikha Tambayong), from a lecherous collaborator. Thinking only of their individual revenge, the boys and their uncle plot and watch Van Trach but are increasingly touched by the plight of their people who struggle to survive under such a corrupt and oppressive regime. Poignantly reuniting with an old friend who has suffered years of brutal torture directly at the hands of Van Trach, the boys are reminded that their father was an honest and just man who would not want them to waste their lives in a pointless quest for vengeance, but to dedicate themselves to the wider cause of justice on behalf not just of themselves but of their people. 

Ironically enough, Jamar and Suwo are two returned “cowboys” who find themselves becoming legendary figureheads for a resistance movement on the behalf of the native local population against the cruel and oppressive colonial occupiers. Heavy stuff aside, Buffalo Boys is less an authentic exploration of the colonial era than a pulp fuelled Eastern western filled with exciting bar fights, adventure and romance. The boys are loosely paired off with the rescued Sri and her feisty sister Kiona (Pevita Pearce) who is the original “buffalo girl”, defying her father to ride buffalos and fire arrows at moving targets though sadly reverts to damsel in distress mode for most of the picture save for smashing a bad guy over the head with a bottle and then being allowed to do a little beheading of her own. Nevertheless, Buffalo Boys is a perfect encapsulation of the positive values of the “cinematic” western in its insistence on individual freedom from political oppression but makes sure to temper its central quest with humanistic virtues, making a case for forgiveness and altruism over coldhearted vengeance as the best way to move forward having made peace with the past.


Buffalo Boys was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口, Nam Ron, 2018)

crossroads one two jaga posterThe world is increasingly interconnected but far from greater freedom and increased possibilities, exploitation is often all that awaits those seeking opportunities overseas. Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口) places the undocumented migrant worker at its centre and uncovers a deeply entrenched system of corruption and hypocrisy in which the line between the forces of order and chaos is so thin as to be barely discernible. The migrant worker is exploited twice over – once by the employers and again by the police who blackmail and extort, pulling in anyone who seems “suspicious” whenever they find themselves short of a few pennies. With no recourse to the “law” and no route “home”, there is little hope for a brighter future for any but those who seek to profit from other people’s misery.

Beginning at the end, we open on the bruised face of a young man who has prominent stitches on his cheek. Something tells us he is a police officer, but he is in questioning over the death of a young boy, killed by a bullet from his weapon. The officer looks stunned and claims to know nothing. As it turns out he may be telling the truth, but he alone is responsible for a child’s death, on the one hand, and exposing a corrupt police chief, on the other.

Flashing back, Joko (Izuan Fitri) – the son of Indonesian migrant worker Iman (Ario Bayu), wants to go for a ride with Adi (Amerul Affendi) – the adult son of Mr. Sarip (Azman Hassan) who runs a small construction firm (among other enterprises). Iman doesn’t really want his son to go, but he ignores him and goes anyway. Iman has another problem on his hands – his sister, Sumiyati (Asmara Abigail), who has left the family she was working for as a maid and wants to go home to Indonesia. Mr. Sarip says he can help with that (for a price) but Sumiyati is stopped by Hassan (Rosdeen Suboh) and his rookie partner Hussein (Zahiril Adzim). Hassan really just wants a bribe because his wife really needs money to avoid family embarrassment, but things goes south when Iman ropes in Adi to try and help him out only to escalate the situation into a declaration of war on the “rogue” policemen.

Undocumented workers exist in a kind of grey area which makes it possible for the unscrupulous to misuse them for their own ends. Sumiyati, like many young women, has gone abroad to work as a maid but found herself kept a virtual prisoner by her employer who holds her passport as a guarantee. With job parameters unclear, she finds herself not only maid but cook, babysitter, and office assistant and all for almost no pay. Fed up she upped and left, but lost her passport in the process leaving her with no legal way back to Indonesia which is where she’s decided she’d rather go. The only way “home” is through the back door channels operated by men like Mr. Sarip who have fingers in many pies and friends in all the right places.

Ordinarily speaking, a righteous rookie cop would be our hero, but we already know Hussein is our villain. Though he wants to enforce the letter of the law and resents the casual corruption of other officers, it’s his hotheadedness and refusal to play the long game which eventually cause so much trouble. Accidentally or otherwise, he does manage to unmask the kingpin responsible for holding together a system of corruption running from the top of the force down, collaborating with the criminals and turning a blind eye to real “crime”, but it comes at a heavy price and one to which Hussein seems worryingly indifferent.

Stylishly shot, Crossroads weaves a complex picture of interconnected exploitations in which the innocent are made to pay the price for the world in which they live. Realist in essence but expressionist in intent, gritty images of children disposing of bodies mingle with a father’s nightmare as blood colours the rain soaked ground and a young woman disappears in its miasmic haze. Malaysia maybe the crossroads of Asia, but it also finds itself at something of a junction unsure in which direction to turn, unwilling to confront the darkness that lies at the heart of the modern society.   


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Official trailer (English subtitles)