Indonesia 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)