Singapore’s 2019 Oscar entry, Buffalo Boys, joins the grand tradition of Westerns that remix and subvert the genre. A tale of lost heroes who return to Java, Indonesia, then fight off Dutch oppressors, the filmis more like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained than Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird in terms of tone and subject matters, though it never quite captures either’s rapturous highs. Still, writer-director Mike Wiluan (who produced both the hyper-gory The Night Comes for Usand Crazy Rich Asians) takes a two-pronged approach, playing up the artifice of his chosen pastiche while leaning in — seriously and straight-faced — to violent colonial fallout.
The film opens in California in the 1860s, introducing us to smart, sensitive Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) and fiery, brutish Jamar (Ario Bayu), brothers who spend lengthy train journeys booking fistfights and fighting them, respectively. The brothers find themselves at home among Chinese rail workers, crammed into compartments the white cowboys don’t frequent; mere minutes in, Wiluan paints a picture of the era rarely shown by standard Westerns. As these sorts of films are wont to do, a shootout ensues, injuring their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), who decides it’s finally time to take them home.
Without wasting a beat, we’re transported to the markets of Java, painted as a seedy, criminal underbelly, though with one key change from depictions of its ilk in American action-adventure: Suwo and Jamar aren’t tourists or foreign saviours in an exotic locale. This is their home, as well as their first opportunity to really speak bahasa Indonesia (the film opens in English) and the setting immediately hints at a greater villain lurking in the shadows, one of European origin, whose calling card (the letters “V.T.”) appears inscribed on walls, weapons, and human skin.
After some soul-searching, Suwo and Jamar set out on a mission for revenge. The “V.T.” of the signage, unkempt Dutch East India Company officer Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), rules the surrounding villagers with an iron fist, though rather than engaging him and his men up front, the brothers have to watch from the shadows. As one might expect, the film does eventually build to violent confrontation, though it stops harrowingly often to depict colonial horrors along the way.
No doubt a point worth making, but unlike South African contemporary Five Fingers for Marseilles (which weaves its colonial context into the action itself), Buffalo Boys hits pause, repeatedly, before exploring a more difficult story of what these men are willing or able to do when confronted with oppression, and how their willingness and ability might clash. At times, when the film opts to depict the execution of innocent farmers, Suwo and Jamar are barely afforded reaction shots, rendering them incidental to their own narrative.
On the other hand, the film skillfully avoids turning real-world horrors into a mindless shoot-’em-up. While the action is occasional, it never falls back on overt stylizations like India’s 2018 film Thugs of Hindostan, a part anti-colonialist Western, part Pirates of the Caribbean riff that treats both colonial bloodshed and swashbuckling action with exact same eye. Buffalo Boys does, however, share Thugs’ approach to set and costume design, which works in its favor. Every background and every fabric is richly detailed, but not even slightly lived-in. Wood adorning the swinging saloon doors, for instance (a more direct transposition of the Western to Java) feels freshly painted, as if some kind of theme-park fixture. The costumes are fun to look at! Though, their pairing with the film’s more serious moments is slightly less alluring.
Buffalo Boys is aware of the artificiality of its own setting, and while it even incorporates steampunk versions of 19th century American firearms, the grounding-point amidst the Western fantasy is the bloodshed itself. Not when turned on the colonial officers, mind you — the film has a cathartic streak that depends on cartoonish explosions — but when employed by Van Trach and his minions, whose wrath is sickly. Scenes of physical abuse yield realistic scars, and the camera remains transfixed on the faces of the women who become victims of V.T.’s rule.
The film does, at times, skew in the direction of unpleasant, but it isn’t ignorant of the racial and gender politics of its chosen genre. Suwo, for instance, crosses paths with Kiona (Pevita Pearce), a woman archer whose skill and bravery he compares favourably to the Apache. In later scenes, he even employs Apache weaponry when retaliating against white colonialists — the film’s “savage” dismemberment is usually enacted by white men in power — though a direct rebuke of established norms comes through quiet conversation. As Suwo and Kiona train together, they come to a common understanding of heroism; or rather, as man, and a woman whose strength, skill, and demeanour are compared to men — an unfeeling, uncaring sort of heroism they hope to reject.
While this thread is dramatized on occasion — the hot-headed Jamar acts out of unhealthy aggression, even towards Suwo — it’s unfortunately rendered moot in a film so dependent on violence for its payoff. Occasional lip-service is paid to the clash between justice and revenge, but the characters’ respective methods and motivations overlap almost completely, making them one and the same. The nature of the conflict is never internal, despite constant hints at the same.
Ultimately, as with any non-American take on such an American institution, the main draw of Buffalo Boys is discovering what lies between the layers of the Western when approached from a different vantage point. For instance, the film doesn’t feature a single horse; given the locale, the lead characters usually ride buffalos, and they do so heroically. Bookended by the more fun elements of genre, and with fresh, richly-conceived landscapes a-plenty, the film’s middle section simmers with nostalgia and justified anger, building to a climax that, despite falling back on convention, renews traditional Western imagery with a meaning it rarely sees.
Buffalo Boys is now in theatres and on VOD.
Siddhant is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York and online.