In recent years, there has been a boom in gonzo programs on The Travel Channel and The Food Network where bold hosts trek to exotic locales. They savor the food, enjoy the nightlife and immerse themselves in local culture and rituals. Director Jamie Wilson’s documentary “Come Back Mr. Bule” works more like a backdoor pilot for one of these TV shows than a standalone film.
A resident of Melbourne, Australia, Wilson puts together a small film crew to see how the Indonesian island of Bali has changed since he last visited in 2001. In 2002, the Bali nightclub bombings took the lives of 202 people, 88 of whom were Australians. 4 more Australians were killed in the 2005 terrorist attacks. Since then, many Australians have been hesitant to visit. Ironically, Bali claims an 86% Hindu population amongst the Islamic majority of Indonesia.
Wilson and cameraman Zev Howley find a land of beauty but also one filled with frustrating eccentricities. The main question you’re left with after watching “Come Back Mr. Bule” is exactly who it exists for. There is no overarching goal to his visit. He’s simply on vacation. It works best as an initiation to Wilson as an amiable host with an easy on the ears Aussie accent. Its only focus seems to be proving that Bali is a friendly and safe destination for Westerners to visit.
The film shines whenever Zev, who serves as the Sancho Panza of the quest, is on screen. I could watch him be mathematically stumped at the currency exchange or naively haggle with a street vendor all day. His cautious approach to the adventure provides a great counterpoint to Wilson’s more savvy style. Unfortunately, the two rarely share scenes together due to them apparently trading off cinematographic duties.
It’s important to realize that the sequences of travel minutia are not merely asides. They are the meat of a documentary showing how to enjoy a foreign land without being rude or trampling on the culture.
The film is an engaging watch but has plenty of rough edges. One of them is a gimmicky onscreen tally used intermittently to show how much is being spent on the trip. The film is fixated on how much everything from a massage to a pair of sunglasses in Bali costs. It also veers into vanity territory as we watch two separate scenes of Wilson exercising. And in an odd note, we are treated to a music video directed by Wilson just before the end credits.
As a show reel for Wilson and Zev as hosts of the next reality travel show, I would be a buyer. As a documentary, it doesn’t add up to much except I’ll now know if I’m being overcharged for sunglasses in Bali.