International movies have the unique ability to share with us stories that we may not know about in easily consumable bites. It’s not that every single movie ever released has to tell the story of a nation or peoples past, God knows we don’t want America represented by Michael Bay. But when a movie is able to inform as well as entertain, it’s always something to be commended. Buffalo Boys thankfully is one of those movies.
If you had to boil down Buffalo Boys to a genre it would be a historical Indonesian-kung-fu movie masquerading as a spaghetti western. If that sounds like too much to fit into a coherent movie, you’d be wrong. While Buffalo Boys runs at merely 101 minutes, it uses every second of its runtime to set up the world properly, make you care about the characters and tell a unique if somewhat tropey story that still feels personal.
Director: Mike Wiluan
Release Date: January 11, 2019 (Limited)
Taking place in the Dutch East Indies in the late 19th century, Buffalo Boys tells the classic jidaigeki cowboy story of outsiders coming to rescue a town beleaguered by an oppressive force. The town this time is the ancestral Java village of the two main characters Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) and Jamar (Ario Bayu) and their adoptive father-figure Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), and the oppressive force is the occupying Dutch government and their despotic commander Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker). Helping them along the way is the village elders oldest daughter and secret warrior Kiona (Pevita Pearce).
Because it so obviously wears its spaghetti western influences on its sleeve, it’s hard for Buffalo Boys to get away from some of the tropes of the genre. For the most part, the tropes are mired in believable situations so if you aren’t looking too hard you won’t notice them quite so quickly. That is until the shootout in the town saloon that spills out into the streets of the Indonesian village that looks eerily like every western set ever. At first, I couldn’t tell if this was all being done with tongue firmly implanted in cheek. It was only when the villain labeled the two heroes not as cowboys because they don’t ride horses but “buffalo boys” (check that title drop) then it became clear that screenwriters Raymond Lee and Mike Wiluan knew exactly what they were doing, and because of that it works so well.
While I would have liked to have seen a bit more martial arts action for a kung-fu movie, there’s just enough there to keep you interested while allowing enough time for the characters and story to be told. The amazing thing is that despite being such a short movie, it doesn’t feel rushed in any way. Moments of gravity are given their just time, while the action is pacey and kinetic. It all works really well in maintaining an action pace while telling a deeply personal Indonesian story.
All of the actors play their roles expertly. No one hams it up and even though the roles are played straight, there’s enough levity to make action sequences and lighter scenes enjoyable. If there is one thing I would have to complain about is that secondary characters pop up and are taken out in quick succession. These characters quick entries and exits could be chalked up to the brutality of the life for the Javanese under Dutch rule.
Despite having fun with the genre, Buffalo Boys doesn’t shy away from its historical brutality one bit. From the moment Suwo and Jamar are back at their village the horrors of the Dutch occupation are brought to the forefront. Political killings and summary executions are numerous and it really adds a lot of weight to the situation as you know the setting is based in history, even if the story isn’t. While the whole cowboy giddup does take away a bit of that historic feel, you never know when the hammer is going to fall on any of the characters.
Buffalo Boys won’t knock you out of your cowboy boots, but for something as ambitious as a kung-fu western, it holds its own in both genres while saying enough to make it feel like a personal film. It’s definitely well worth your time if you’re looking for something outside of the usual Hollywood action blockbuster.