The western may be a uniquely American genre, but the Indonesian film BUFFALO BOYS is reinventing it for 2018. BUFFALO BOYS is a thoughtful blockbuster. It manages to entertain while exploring how films can represent history. As discussed in my review, BUFFALO BOYS is a revisionist western that explores the horrors of colonialism through a powerful revenge tale.

I sat down with the BUFFALO BOYS’ director Mike Wiluan, screenwriter Rayya Markim, and star Ario Bayu to discuss the making of the film and crafting its themes. And don’t worry comic fans, there’s a BUFFALO BOYS comic book as well!

ComicsVerse: Mike, this is the first film that you’ve directed. What was it like for you taking on a film of this scale?

Mike Wiluan: I’ve always sort of been behind the scenes, producing, looking at the logistics, the budget, all the financing, the distribution. This is the first time, obviously, I’ve gone really, really deep with the creative shaping of the content. It really was a huge eye-opener. Nothing can prepare you for that hot seat in which you are suddenly involved in a tsunami of creativity, talent, and anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It was a hugely ambitious movie from the very beginning. Started out with a one hundred and fifty-page script and had to cut it down to one hundred. We had so many ideas to fulfill…because it was a project that happened over a couple of years. The genre offers so many tropes and possibilities and you want to add homages and little easter eggs here and there. We ran out of time basically. So it was totally ambitious and it was a real eye-opener and a roller coaster ride at the same time.

Buffalo Boys
Courtesy of Infinite Frameworks Pte Ltd

CV: And speaking of scale, Ario you have a lot of stunts you have to take on in this movie. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of preparing for the role?

Ario Bayu: Well, first of all, Mike had all these ideas about the choreography. And we had Kazu (Patrick Tang) our stunt coordinator who pretty much helped us a lot in terms of the prep for the shoot. I’m not an action actor, but with Kazu being very precise and detailed and helpful in order to make me look good. It was a collaborative effort.

CV: You pulled them off well.

AB: Oh thanks. It was very tiring. It was actually one of the fun parts of shooting.

MW: It was. There was no intention to have all of the actors doubled all the time. Obviously some shots we had to. But we spent three months in preparation.

AB: That was nuts. It was rigorous.

MW: Yeah it was quite rigorous. It’s a western, but you don’t automatically think you’re going to get into…because I didn’t want to do straight martial arts. It had to be brawls and hard contact. But it was also about guns and trying to make that work with airsoft guns. It was a very interesting process. We took the guys to the range to have this muscle memory with weapon firing.

AB: Yeah and at one point we had the real, old school revolvers because they’re very different from the new Glocks. So I had to feel it out. It was quite fun.

MW: Nowadays, like when we did HEADSHOT and we just made NIGHT COMES FOR US as well for Netflix, in the days before…we were using blanks in real weapons that had been modified and the safety, the whole idea of dangerous weapons and putting them in people’s faces, going through that process of safety is eliminated when using airsoft [guns]. But you take out that effect you want when someone is firing a gun with the recoil and the whole kinetics of the energy. You need to try to find a way to reenact it and enhance that in computer graphics later on. It’s a very laborious process but you gotta always think about that. Especially with a western.

RED HARVEST and the Evolution of an Archetype

CV: With this dedication to authenticity, what was the research you did into the time period in Indonesia?

AB: Mike did extensive work.

MW: I did a lot of work initially and I joined up with Rayya and Rayya became my co-writer. It went through several drafts storywise. Before then, there was a lot of research on the Dutch occupation, the colonization, uniforms, to what towns were like. So there was a lot of historical references. But I was very conscious not to make a film that was full of direct historical repetitions and reenactments because it’s a western. I wanted to showcase a colonial period in a different way in this world in this garrison town where Van Trach is sort of like the sheriff of the small town.

He has a band of minions that represent all aspects of that society. What was interesting that came out of that research which I continued in another show was the treatment of what you might call “half breeds”. It was mixed Indonesians who had parentage of the Caucasian and native mix. They never fit into any strata of society. These guys ended up in this movie as very tough street people who ended up working for the Dutch. So we have Drost played by Daniel Adnan, Adrie played by Hannah Al Rashid, Koen played by Zac Lee. They had no place in society.

Rayya Makarim: They were really looked down on because they were half of something else. They were not accepted by the natives and they were not accepted by the Dutch because they were not “pure blood”.

CV: Ario, your character, and his brother are returning to their homeland and are trying to rediscover their heritage in a way.

MW: They were given this schooling by the uncle of their heritage over the years, but they were getting dualties because they were learning how to survive in the wild west with the Chinese immigrants. Learning to become cowboys, learning about frontierism, freedom, fighting for one’s right, confronting issues head-on. That’s why Jamar, Ario’s character, develops very quickly into this very strong-minded, strong-willed person. Yoshi [Sudarso], who plays Suwo, is a little bit more of a dreamer-

RM: Go with the flow-

MW: Go with the flow. So that’s why they have this yin and yang personality. But they both have the skills that were honed in the wild west and when they come back home, Arana tells them to look, guys, I’ve taught you everything that you know. Use your culture, use your heritage that I taught you about. Blend in. And that’s when they kind of start rediscovering their roots.

AB: And also for Yoshi and I, Yoshi immigrated to America when he was nine. And my family moved to New Zealand when I was nine. So, in a way, I kind of related to Jamar and Suwo. I had to rediscover my language, had to reassimilate myself with my own culture.

MW: So there’s a parallel. We all came back to Indonesia and we had roots, we had strong Indonesian roots, we were Indonesia, we were rediscovering our heritage. We tried to incorporate some of these scenes. Some of them didn’t end up in the final cut, unfortunately.

AB: What? [laughs]

MW: Director’s cut we’ll see all of them.

AB: Those were some of my best scenes! My best acting!

MW: [Laughs] So there was really that parallel with someone who identifies with their country coming back but not fully realizing all the little nuances and using that in the BUFFALO BOYS.

Buffalo Boys
Courtesy of Infinite Frameworks Pte Ltd

CV: You talked earlier about colonialism. BUFFALO BOYS opens with text that says the following: “accounts of suppression, brutality, and tragedy are often lost in tales of folklore”. That really struck me because it feels like it’s talking about the American western. Where they whitewash the terrible things that went on and ignore the colonialism and the brutality committed towards the Native Americans. Was that part of your inspiration when you started writing BUFFALO BOYS?

MW: There were two things. One is that history in Indonesia tends to be two accounts. One is, obviously, from local historians that say “oh, the Dutch did this, did this to us” and then there’s one which is nothing really happened but there were a few instances here and there. And stories became folklore. It was really more of an example of how fact and fiction, you can’t separate them. They become these stories that you tell children. And this is one that could have potentially happened.

It’s not too far-fetched to think that Indonesians did travel to the wild west of the frontier at that time with Chinese immigrants, with Asian immigrants, worked the railroads or worked in the west, and decided to come back. I thought “why not?” that’s within the realm of real possibility. Especially in the mid-1800’s where travel was becoming a lot more frequent. Steamships were going up and down so it was something that was-

RM: Plausible.

MW: Yeah, very plausible.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Paving the Way for POC?

CV: You mention the idea of folklore, for you, as an actor, working in a genre that has so many tropes and archetypes, how do you look at this role and say how do I make this my own without copying the Clint Eastwood’s or the John Waynes?

AB: I think Mike was very specific. The root is Indonesian but it in the western genre. So I tried to amalgamate my knowledge of Indonesian history with this modern, western take and tried to fuse those two things together.

MW: It went down to different details. First, there was the story and Jamar’s characterization and how he would be Americanized. What were his traits as a character? Then it went down to detail like how he would wear his hat, how he would hold his gun. So when you start thinking about this, I remember you were very obsessed with your hat.

Because it was very important. We didn’t want someone who was uncomfortable with a hat. When he comes back, he wants to wear it. It’s a characterization, the way you wear your hat. So Jamar and Suwo had different ways of wearing the hat. Suwo would wear it a little bit more jauntily because he was more carefree. Jamar was like it’s got to look proper, hide the brows, no one can see the eyes.  

Each of them had different fighting styles. They would hold their guns very differently. They had different weapons, they had different styles. Each of them had to split off and be very different in their approaches, to whether it was revenge or justice, the differences between the two and how they would see it. Jamar would be so fixated on revenge, revenge because that’s what he’s been told and he’s doggedly gone after that. While Suwo sees the other side of it. He thinks that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for justice.

RM: Yeah, one is so focused, the other one is not really listening, just observing. But through that, through the observation, he sees other things. Where Jamar is so focused on let’s do what we came here to do, Suwo was a little bit more playful, a little bit more immature, but because of that, he got to see more stuff and learn more about justice and meeting people and understanding maybe it’s not about revenge.

MW: Suwo has this whole peripheral side. Peripheral, touchy-feely approach, while Jamar is laser eyes, moving forward, focused on the objective because that’s what he’s been told all along.

RM: But also he’s the oldest. Their father is the sultan, so the next one in line is Jamar.

MW: Yeah, so he carries this burden. And it’s mentioned in BUFFALO BOYS. We go to a flashback of what happened. This burden is on him to come back to the country that he belonged to, where his father was the leader, the sultan. Suwo may not necessarily share that burden, but he has to support his brother. But at the same time Suwo has been given the task of okay, this is the knife that killed your father. By holding it you’re supporting your brother and his burden. It’s symbolic in those two ways.

CV: You mentioned earlier that the script was initially very dense. So the last question I have to ask, as someone who really enjoyed the BUFFALO BOYS — BUFFALO BOYS 2, when’s it going to happen?

AB: Already? Wow.

CV: I’m just saying, I’d love to see more.

MW: We’d love to. It’s one of the more exciting things to explore. I created the characters and the world so that they continue living on in this world, and there’s a lot more bad people in that world, and a lot of good people, and a lot more interesting people. It’s really deep; it’s got a long path of it. The last words are “legends never die” and you really want to see Jamar and Suwo go on to their next adventure. They’re released now. Their uncle has said go and do what you need to do.

RM: Find your own destiny.

MW: Find your own destiny. You’ve sorted out the difference between revenge and justice now seek justice wherever you go, and we want to follow them. So I’d love to move on to what happens afterward and follow them on their various adventures, but we’ll just have to see how well the movie does [laughs]. For me, yeah!

BUFFALO BOYS premieres at the New York Asian Film Festival on June 15th.

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