Excuse me kind sirs, but could you point me in the right direction as to where the action is?
It is 19th Century Indonesia, the Dutch West Indies, and Arana has returned to the island of Java with his nephews Jamar and Suwo after twenty years in self exile from the Dutch colony. Arana fled with his then-infant nephews when his brother Hamza, the sultan of the land, was slain by Van Trach when he went to the Dutch Resident to negotiate a peace settlement. Returning from a couple of decades in the American Wild West the trio return to exact their revenge on Van Trach for the cold blooded murder of their brother and father.
Mike Wiluan, producer of made-in-Indonesia films like Dead Mine, Headshot and Beyond Skyline takes a shot at directing his first feature film, the period action film Buffalo Boys. Billed as an action film and part of the Action program at the Fantasia International Film Festival selling Buffalo Boys as an action film is a huge misnomer. Here is by and large the biggest issue with the film.
To be fair Buffalo Boys should be sold as a period dramatic piece will a little bit of action thrown in for good measure. Wiluan follows the Western structure for the most part, the exiles returning home to exact revenge upon the bad guy who killed their pa, and teases the audience with small and sparse altercations throughout the bulk of the film. Tragically the first real taste of big action does not come until an hour into the story. It boils down to the balance between action and drama and there simply not enough action to warrant Buffalo Boys being sold as an action film.
The climax is not as rewarding as all the flimsy buildup promises and is over before the audience really has the chance to get invested in it. Jamar and Suwo ride into town on the back of buffalo, hence the title but the geography of this scene cuts from them, riding something, to shots of buffalo running, be it their heads bobbing or legs charging, then back up to the brothers’ heads bobbing up and down. Then cut to a couple of Van Trach’s soldiers taking shots at them from a tower, cut to the brothers ducking their heads, to the buffalo, to the shooters, ducking, bobbing, shooting, ducking, charging.
Apart from that scene that leads to the finale the physical action and fights are perplexing at best. Even though they are edited harshly, somehow Wiluan and his camera crew still shoot the melees in a way that the edits flow together. It shouldn't work but here it does. But that does not save the film for the length of its run time there are only two action scenes worth talking about and they are merely just minutes of a one hundred minute film. It is hard to be any more critical of something there is hardly anything of.
There is also this great distance between our heroic trio and the villain. What Wiluan really seems focused on is in his film is getting the message across that the Colonial era Dutch were bastards. Complete and utter bastards. Wiluan and his team perhaps spend to much time telling us what dicks the Dutch were at the time, but he keeps hammering it down, over and over again. Yes. We get it. The Dutch were assholes. Can we get to the point where the good guys get to carry out their revenge? No? How about after the branding and cold blooded murder of villagers? No? Will it happen after the public hanging? No? Just a little bit more dickishness to put up with for now? Oh, that muted rape scene must be the end of it? No? Okay. But you better make good on your promise to entertain us with some good action scenes. Eventually. Maybe?
I’m not trying to defend the Dutch or any country (including my own homeland) with a rich history of being assholes to other countries around the World, but this is misguided aggression and does little to increase the tension leading to the eventual standoff between the brothers and Van Trach.
Because of the omniscient narrative there is no real interaction between the brothers and the evil bastard Van Trach. Even their first attempt at killing this particular Dutch dick can be seen as a cowardly and distant act. They take a room above the town saloon, somewhere near Van Trach’s home. From the window of their room they plan to snipe the resident, but the sight of a certain household slave stops them in their tracks. Van Trach really does not know that the brothers are coming for him until late into the final act so at no point until then does he ever appear to feel under any real threat. Nor does he seem particularly distressed about this discovery afterwards, because there is not enough time left in the story to build on that discovery and instill a sense of fear of their arrival. This is such a lost opportunity for real tension in the film.
The more subtle issue with Buffalo Boys happens very early on in the story. Arana and his nephews rescue Sri and her grandfather from a raid by Von Trach’s chronie Fakar. As they travel to their village everyone sees an archer shooting target practice with a bow and arrow while riding a buffalo. It’s very clear that this is a woman when we first see her. Turns out, it is Sri’s sister Kiona who gets lectured by her father Sakar, the headman of their village, when she returns, for stealing his buffalo for a little joy riding and target practice. After everyone goes through the standard quarrel of about the perils bringing strangers to the village the trio are welcomed. Here is one of the first moments where Wiluan begins to drop the ball.
The younger brother Suwo comes upon Kiona who is shooting targets the next day. Still upset after being called out by her father Kiona the day before what happens next is a scene of forced gender politics as Kiona reminds Suwo that he will never be at a disadvantage like her because he is a man. But Sowu feels that this is a disadvantage because that has its own set of rules as well. Rules like do not show your feelings, be brave and strong and ‘Fight, be a hero. Win’. These are the only virtues that make you a man in 19th Century Java and Sowu seems to be offended by these expectations on him.
Where’s the issue? Wiluan never follows up on this scene properly. Suwo is never in a situation where he can do the opposite of what is expected of him ‘as a man’. From then on he is always the first into danger. The only major brawl leading to the climax is his and his alone because Kiona has been taken by force to a bar where the owner Leung has the skull of a murdered son on his wall as a trophy. There is never a time when Sowu is not following these set of rules. Worse, Kiona is never given the opportunity to rise above the expectations on her as a woman. In the climax her a Sri participate but for a moment then disappear in the firefight between the Buffalo Boys and Van Trach. You believe during that moment when Kiona lets arrows fly that this is her moment but then she is gone as quickly as she came.
This would not be nearly as much of an issue if Wiluan had not mentioned it in the first place. But because he has made a point of having this scene in his film he has to be held to task for it.
The overall failure in Buffalo Boys is giving the audience a proper balance of action and drama. Drama has its place but taking up two thirds of your story before getting into any action worth talking about is a disservice to your audience expecting an Indonesian western with boys riding buffalo into town with guns a blazing. When that drama does nothing to increase the tension between your main characters but only goes to enforce the notion that the bad guys are really, really bad this is time and effort misappropriated. The audience does not need that much exposition on evil to sell it.
The rules are clearly set up for everyone to follow. Stray from the path and you end up like Buffalo Boys has, lost in the dramatic desert depriving its audience of nourishing and live giving action.