RIP Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch died the other day. I never met him, but he is indirectly responsible for my being in Jakarta. The film adaption of his novel The Year of Living Dangerously, published in 1978, probably about the time I first started to toddle, was my first glimpse into a sort of tropical baroque fairy tale that I knew I wanted to experience firsthand.

According to his obit in the Guardian (, the author said in September 2012, “I’ve written other books since that I think might be better. But people always come back to that one and it’s because it was a film. That’s how much film dominates our culture.”

That may be true but Koch also co-wrote the screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award, so take the cantankerous undertone with a grain of salt. And for me, as a teenager in suburban Los Angeles, film—specifically, VCR—was the primary means by which I would be exposed to such work. I did eventually read the novel, but by that time I was already living in Southeast Asia, and well into my thirties.

When I first encountered the film, it was already many years old. It was released in 1982, directed by Peter Weir, and stars Linda Hunt, Sigourney Weaver, and Mel Gibson (no relation, though he did wreck my Aunt Marianne’s vintage Corvette while drunk–but that’s another story).

The narrative is set in Indonesia during the breakdown of President “Bung” Sukarno’s rule in 1965 and apparently is based on Koch’s younger brother Philip’s experiences as a journalist during that time. The novel, I would later learn, is a subtle and sensitive exploration of the Western encounter with the East. The film, however, takes a romantic subplot and makes it the main plot with a Hollywood ending. In the book, the main character loses his eye; in the film, Mel Gibson wears soiled bandages dramatically over his face.

Because of political restrictions, the movie was shot on location in that great outdoor film set for Western movies about Southeast Asia, the Philippines (fans of Apocalypse Now should know that not a second of that film was shot in Indochina). Interiors were shot on soundstages in Australia.

The acting of the principle leads is terrible. Gibson’s Australian accent is toned down for the American audience and the same emotional development he employs in every film (smoldering intensity building to shouting rage) is showcased here. I guess when he was still young and good looking it was attractive.  Sigourney Weaver’s attempt at a British accent is so bad that eventually she drops the accent altogether. What, no English actresses were available? Oh, but for Charlotte Rampling to have been given the part! Otherwise the acting by the supporting cast, mostly character actors, is fantastic. Linda Hunt plays a half-Chinese boy midget; she won an Academy Award for her performance.

But it was the setting and the soundtrack that got to me as a kid.

It was like something from National Geographic but with gongs and machine guns and wayang puppets and prostitutes in cemeteries and tropical downpours and bamboo that creaked spooky at night and hard-bitten journos drinking in dingy hole-in-the-walls. Suburban Los Angeles seemed all the more bland and I knew then and there that at some point in the future I would be heading to some postcolonial equatorial city.  That it would be Jakarta I could not have guessed.

The soundtrack is another level altogether. The film features a single track by Vangelis that rivals for emotional punch anything he did for other films, including Blade Runner. However that track was not released on the official soundtrack album which instead consisted entirely of an amazing simulacrum of Indonesian music, composed and largely performed by Maurice Jarré. As I wrote in an article for Signal to Noise Magazine last year:

“Jarré’s soundtrack uses pentatonic scales and traditional rhythmic structures played on authentic gongs and drums to preserve the essential elements of the gamelan sound to enhance the visual spectacle on the screen without distracting from it: as audio exoticism, it is superb. Yet at that time and place, in the late 1980s in the wholesome outer suburb of Los Angeles that was my teenage home, it might have been the only introduction to Indonesian music available.”

Roughly 15 years after seeing the film and buying the soundtrack, I finally read the book. I brought it with me on my first trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, by bus from Singapore. I read it in one go while sitting in a Chinese beer and noodle stall on Petaling Street.

Later that night, I got very drunk with a group of backpackers, and after nearly getting into a fight with a beefy Scot who would surely have kicked my ass, wound up bringing a fat, young fräulein from Schwabing to my hotel room—which had no window—but we were too drunk to fuck.

Back in Singapore, I included the book in a class I taught that could roughly be called “novels about Southeast Asia written by white men,” and included Orwell Burmese Days, Greene The Quiet American, Burgess The Enemy in the Blanket, and Theroux, Saint Jack. I also showed the film adaptations of some of these books, including Saint Jack which until recently was banned in Singapore—The Year of Living Dangerously was also until recently banned there as a “good neighbor” gesture to nearby Indonesia where, I am told, the film is still banned.

I thought the class would create a daring, edgy curriculum. Instead, it seemed merely to confirm in my students’ minds their own prejudices about white people in the tropics—sex obsessed, exploitative, bigoted, arrogant, simple-minded barbarians.

I turned this result to my advantage by using some of the material generated during class discussion in a paper I presented at the “CUASEAN Conference on Language, Literature and Culture in ASEAN: Unity in Diversity,” held at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, in 2008. The paper was titled: “Opium and Hamburgers: Southeast Asian Exoticism and Fetishism in The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously,” and linked instances in both novels in which Western male characters metaphorically reduce local people, men and women, to comestibles. If I recall correctly, it generated no response at the conference. It was never published.

Recently, I bought the CD of the soundtrack to The Year of Living Dangerously; my copy from high school disappeared long ago. Since moving to Southeast Asia, as a record collector, I have imbibed a great deal of the music of the region, and I wanted to see if Jarré’s music was as evocative as I remembered, even after being exposed to the “real thing.” It is!

For all the above, I thank you Christopher Koch.




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