In “Tropic of Emerald,” Dutch helmer Orlow Seunke (“The Taste of Water”) crafts a fascinating historical epic set in 1940s Indonesia. Weaving historical events into a tropical love story, pic sprawls from the pre-war colonial heyday ruled by the Dutch plantation owners to the Japanese invasion and prison camps, ending with the natives’ violent independence struggle against their weakened Dutch masters. Sympathetic to both sides, this well-lensed epic goes surprisingly deep into the social and political climate. Echoing as it does the current violence in Indonesia, it might find a foothold in some smaller theatrical markets, as well as TV and video in its longer three-hour version.
Screenplay by Seunke and Mieke de Jong sagely centers on the beautiful nightclub singer Ems (Esmee de la Bretoniere), a native Indo-European married to elderly club owner Herman (Bram van der Vlugt). As strong-willed a spitfire as Scarlet O’Hara, Ems is fiercely loyal to her land but is torn between her European and poor island roots. She falls in deeply in love with Theo (Pierre Bokma), a good-looking young Dutchman who has come to work on his uncle’s rubber plantation.
Their glamorous affair ends along with the colonialists’ spoiled life when the Japanese army invades in 1942. Theo, reckless but basically weak, is imprisoned in a nightmarish camp. Ems sleeps with a Japanese officer to keep him alive.
Seunke blends history, including occasional snatches of b&w archive footage, into a tense narrative that moves briskly in the shortened theatrical version. Voiceover narration by Theo and Ems fills viewers in on story gaps and historical events.
As Ems, Bretoniere is a complex, luminous presence exuding femininity and strength. Through her the film offers a perspective on both Dutch and native Indonesian points of view, ultimately choosing, as she does, an independent country over her romantic but fragile Dutch love. Tom Erisman’s cinematography conveys the paradise and the infernal side of the tropics with equal conviction, and Menno Daams’s music is pleasantly atmospheric.