Jakarta. Mike Wiluan’s highly anticipated, star-studded attempt at a local western, "Buffalo Boys," attempts to teleport gun-slinging, gallon hat-wearing cowboys from America’s Wild West to Dutch-occupied Indonesia, where they ride water buffaloes instead of horses. The result of this mashup? A melange of anatopisms and confusions.
Despite impressive action scenes – to be expected considering its reportedly huge budget – the film offers an inconsistent cultural landscape that grates more than boot spurs on a horse's (or buffalo's!) belly.
The movie could have been an interesting allegory of how third-culture kids rediscover the culture of their kampung (homeland), but ends up as a lame attempt to turn Kipling's oft-quoted racist adage, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," on its head.
The movie began in tempo doeloe in 1860, with two brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) traveling on a train.
Jamar is getting ready to fight "Brute," played by Conan Stevens from "Game of Thrones," while Suwo collects money from a crowd betting on the duel.
Having defeated Brute, the boys and their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo) hop on a ship to make the long voyage to Indonesia, their homeland, to avenge their father's death at the hands of a Dutch officer called Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker)
The boys’ father turns out to be a Javanese king, Sultan Hamza (Mike Lucock).
Yes, these "buffalo boys" are actually princes from Java who left the island when they were just babies because their father was killed by a colonizer.
With his last words, the Sultan told the young Arana (Donny Alamsyah) to save the boys by taking them as far away as possible from Java.
The film doesn’t explain why Arana then took the boys to the United States, though Wiluan told reporters during the movie’s premiere on Wednesday (18/07) that he was inspired by stories of Asian laborers working on America’s transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.
He figured it was possible that Indonesians could have been part of this mass migration.
When they reached Indonesia, Arana told the boys to blend in with the crowd by speaking Indonesian and hiding their true identities.
The boys were forced to navigate their birth country – that felt like a foreign land to them having been away for so long – by speaking broken and stiff Indonesian.
Conflict arose between the two boys, with Suwo starting to question if killing someone they barely know constitutes real justice.
But the filmmakers chose not to pay further attention to the boys’ personal demons. They just focused on the action. So the boys kill and kill and kill, looking more like soldiers than the colonizers they’re fighting.
Wiluan and co-screenwriter Rayya Makarim said in an interview with Comics Verse at the film's New York Asian Film Festival premiere that some of the bad guys in the movie – Drost (Daniel Adnan), Adrie (Hannah Al Rashid) and Koen (Zack Lee) – are, like the boys, mestizos.
Historically, mestizos were often discriminated in the Dutch East Indies, rejected by the elitist Dutch since they were not pure-blooded and hated by the pribumi (natives) for their Dutch affectations.
But again, the filmmakers seem to not be aware of the complications and complexities of this historical tidbit, that may actually lend gravity to their action flick.
Geographical, Cultural Confusions
Wiluan told reporters he intended Buffalo Boys to be a "nasi goreng western," a cowboy movie with Indonesian roots.
Last year, Variety's Maggie Lee called Mouly Surya’s "Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts" a "satay western," thanks to its setting in the arid savannah of Sumba in East Nusa Tenggara, which bears some resemblance to America's frontier wild west.
Mouly at least tried to incorporate local social problems into her version of mashup western (with very mixed results).
But Buffalo Boys simply doesn’t know where it stands, literally. Its colonial setting fails to lend any depth to the cliché good (guys) vs. bad (guys) story.
The film looks like a period action drama, but Wiluan insists it's a fantasy.
Medcom quoted Wiluan as saying he did not want the movie to look like a history lesson, but is this a reason to forget history altogether?
Let's look at the long list of anatopisms (putting things out of place) in the movie, and examine if they mean anything deeper than just a half-hearted attempt at kitsch.
Which part of Java is the film set exactly?
There's a glimpse of the Prambanan Temple, which in real life is located near Yogyakarta. In the movie around it is all forests and rice fields, and then a tiny town in the desert with an Old West-style saloon – one of the typical tropes of a cowboy western.
Where's the nasi goreng, you ask?
Some of the minor characters in the movie speak with a Javanese accent, hinting that the action could take place anywhere in Central Java, Yogyakarta or East Java.
Wiluan said at the premiere that the film's fictional location is "just Java."
The thing is, the geographical confusion is neither funny ha-ha nor offers high-brow intertextual fun for cowboy western fanatics.
Then there's the problem of language. Arch villain Van Trach speaks entirely in English though Bussemaker the actor is actually Dutch.
The pribumis speak in stiff, formal Indonesian with Javanese accent. Wiluan said Indonesian has a more universal appeal than Javanese.
They appear to understand the Dutch officer's English but never speak the foreign language themselves.
The boys add a new layer of nonsense. English is their mother tongue, but they respond to the Dutch villain in Indonesian right up until the end, when their covers are finally blown.
If the filmmakers intend the boys' insistence to speak in Indonesian as some sort of shorthand for patriotism, then it's not subtlety or sophistication that makes the symbolism go over everyone's head, but inconsistencies and confusion.
Then there's the problem with the buffalo.
You could replace the buffalo in this movie with any other animal and no one would bat an eyelid, nor would the movie lose any meaning.
Buffalo races are popular in some parts of Indonesia, including in Madura in East Java, Jembrana in Bali and Tanah Datar in West Sumatra, as well as in some other countries in Southeast Asia.
The tradition can be traced back to the area's agricultural roots, where farmers celebrate each harvest by racing each other on the water buffaloes they use to plough their rice fields.
The movie does not bother with the sociological niceties. The buffaloes are just there to emphasize the "Indonesian-ness" of the film.
The buffalo first appears in the movie when Kiona (Pevita Pearce) – strong but underused heroine of the film – rides a buffalo for no apparent reason against the scolding of her father, who said it was very unladylike of her.
The buffaloes don't appear again until the two cowboys ride them to rush to their duel with Van Trach and his cronies.
Though the filmmakers insist their attempt to mesh East and West was done to promote Indonesia, it is unnerving to see the movie may have dumbed itself down too much – by shirking details of the very culture they want to show off – that they end up doing it a disservice.
Is showing a mindless bloodbath between Asian cowboys and white men the most effective way to promote Indonesia, or to appeal to the international market?
Buffalo Boys is playing in cinemas across the country.