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January 11, 2019

Buffalo Boys


Mike Wiluan - 2018
Samuel Goldwyn Films

While the release of two Indonesian "westerns" in 2018 is coincidental, it is less of a novelty when one considers how the genre has truly become transnational, especially after the advent of Italian westerns. One might even argue that Asian westerns have been around since at least the time of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Curiously, both Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and Buffalo Boys were up for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Marlina was Indonesia's submission, while Buffalo Boys was entered as a Singaporean film, based on that country being Mike Wiluan's base of operations. As a producer, Wiluan had a hand in Crazy Rich Asians. Buffalo Boys is Wiluan's debut as a director, as well as screenplay cowriter.

Taking place around 1860, the story is about two brothers and their uncle who return to the country known at that time as Java, from the United States. Java was a Dutch colony. Their goal is to seek revenge for the death of the brothers' father, murdered by a Dutch government official who as essentially enslaved the peasants within his region, and controls a small town and fort.

In terms of the story, all the familiar tropes are there. This is the classic template of the stranger(s) in town who, following an awkward entrance, a couple setbacks, encounters with nasty henchmen, deaths of friends and relatives, a final shootout, find love and bring justice to the community. If you've seen a western with Audie Murphy, nothing in the story will come as a surprise. But the pleasure in this film is in part the familiarity with the story, and how Wiluan reworks it within a different context.

Wiluan doesn't directly quote any older films but those who have followed the genre through its various cycles will recognize most of the sources of inspiration. Certainly the moment when the brothers step into town, ready for the final showdown, echoes a similar moment in The Wild Bunch. And John Ford is virtually paraphrased here with his line, "print the legend", regarding frontier mythology. The portrayal of racism by the Dutch recalls the revisionist westerns of the 1970s. And the influence of Sergio Leone seems inescapable, with a couple of extreme close-ups of eyes, and musical themes reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone.

That final showdown is a hoot, with four-barrel shotguns, cannons, arrows, knives, axes and hatchets among the various implements of death and destruction. Imagine that finale in The Wild Bunch, with fewer people, but bigger explosions and bloodier deaths. There's also some Southeast Asian kickboxing in the mix, but seeing a couple of unlucky guys blown backwards a hundred yards or so from the force of a powerful blast through a thick wooden barricade offers greater visceral pleasure. In something like the same way one can enjoy a familiar Shakespeare play done with a different kind of setting outside of Elizabethan England, so is the fun of seeing the cowboy movie cliches transplanted to another time and country.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 11, 2019 08:36 AM