Westerns set outside the United States are among the genre’s most fascinating specimens. Using a visual language and mode of storytelling specific to America, these films reflect both upon their own countries’ culture, and by turn American culture as well. Last year, South African film Five Fingers For Marseilles set a high bar for adapting the genre to a new locale; Buffalo Boys picks up that baton and runs to Indonesia.
Buffalo Boys is set in 1860s Java (now part of Indonesia) and follows Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), Jamar (Ario Bayu), and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) - the sultan’s brother and two sons - who are forced into exile after the sultan's murder at the hands of Dutch colonist Captain Van Trach. After a couple decades workin’ the railroads in California, they return home to discover that Van Trach is still in power, ruling with an iron fist. Then, it’s time to win some hearts and minds, avenge a father, and dethrone a self-appointed colonialist dictator.
Java under Dutch rule is not painted fondly. Van Trach’s is an oppressive regime, enforced by both imported brutes and coercible local gangs, and it operates with impunity. It’s not above murdering innocent townsfolk, nor kidnapping, branding, show-trial executions, and all manner of unpleasant behaviour. Crime runs rampant, as long as it doesn’t harm the area’s rulers. Saloons and shops (decorated in a style awkwardly halfway between contemporary local architecture and the Old West) are labeled Whites Only. Yup, it’s a Dutch colony, alright.
Writer-director Mike Wiluan (a producer on The Night Comes For Us, Headshot, and Crazy Rich Asians) dramatises that colonial struggle on a personal level, in the murdered sultan’s family’s return for revenge. Arana, avenging his brother, and Jamar and Suwo, avenging their father, represent their entire people - which nicely focuses action around theme, but also makes the story somewhat broad in nature. The subplot that stands out most is that of Arana’s wife Seruni (Happy Salma), taken prisoner by Van Trach after the Sultan’s death and made an indentured servant and sex slave. This is the real emotional core of the film, and it’s well-performed all the way to its devastating conclusion, even if its positioning alongside badass action and goofy comedy cheapens it somewhat.
This dark storyline is also balanced out by the (only) other prominent female character Kiona (Pevita Pearce), a young and plucky warrior-in-waiting and unfortunately something of an underdeveloped cliche. The saving grace of her character arc is that her romance with Suwo is based in mutual distaste for gender roles, with Suwo rejecting traditional ideas of masculinity as well. If only his vocalised views had any bearing on the character’s obligatory action beats in the climax.
As for the action itself, it doesn’t disappoint. As this is both an Indonesian film and a Western, the action runs the gamut from barroom brawls to martial arts to gunfighting. Limbs are severed; blood is spilled (both practical and CGI); machetes and knives are utilised highly effectively. It’s all very handsomely put together - as is the rest of the production - escalating towards a finale involving all of the above, plus explosives.
Unlike a lot of Southeast Asian action movies, which often tend towards grimness, Buffalo Boys sports an wide gamut of tone. There’s a lot of humour in there, largely thanks to a couple of characters who play explicit comic relief roles like “cackling grotesque townsperson” and “bug-eyed gangster whose running joke is getting stabbed in the eye.” The tonal mix doesn’t quite work all the time - an emotional scene at a hanging is interrupted by both of those comedy characters, and the score is a little overactive in telling you what you’re meant to be feeling - but it certainly adds a respite from the gritty revenge narrative.
That tonal mixture also feels cribbed from several different varieties of Western, which is where Buffalo Boys gets truly interesting. Not only does the film transplant genre tropes from the Old West to Java - it transplants its characters, too. Jamar and Suwo, who grew up in the United States and see their homeland for the first time here, bring American cultural references with them, making for a stark contrast with their uncle. They conform far closer to the cowboy image. Half their dialogue is in English. When Kiona appears, riding a buffalo, they compare her to an Apache chief. Given the film’s narrative around colonialism, these men, effectively immigrants in their own country but also taking back that country, make for a fascinating perspective you just don’t get in many films.
Buffalo Boys is a solid companion piece to Five Fingers For Marseilles - also a non-American Western, and curiously also about a Dutch colony. It’s not quite the work of art that film is, but it doesn’t strive to be. While its various parts don’t entirely click, they work individually, meaning the film contains an emotional revenge movie, a rollicking action Western, and a blunt take on colonialism all at once. But the best element, as with Five Fingers, is the use of American cinematic imagery to frame a story that’s uniquely non-American.
As Singapore’s official entry into this year’s Academy Awards, Buffalo Boys will likely lose out to films by bigger “name” directors or with more festival pedigree. But don’t let that stop you from checking it out.