Australian director Peter Weir's exotic new film, "The Year of Living Dangerously," does "Tootsie" one better: Tiny Linda Hunt appears as the film's central figure, an androgynous gnome named Billy Kwan, and manages to upstage stars Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson.

Weir chose Hunt over male actors who had read for the role, despite the sexual disparity. And so the film becomes more intriguing than it might otherwise have been. Kwan is both character and metaphor, a fusion of yin and yang: confusing as world politics, mysterious as Indonesia, where the story takes place.

Billy mesmerizes the director, so the romance between the leads fades to gray. The couple can't even be trusted to fall in love on their own: Kwan, a master of Javanese puppetry, manipulates them into an affair using the art of symbol and shadow.

Weaver plays Jill Bryant, a British spook in Jakarta in 1965, before the downfall of Sukarno. About to return to England, she meets radio correspondent Guy Hamilton (Gibson) on his first assignment outside Australia. Hamilton is adopted by Kwan, who helps him get his first big story and build up his contacts. Kwan is obsessed with the poor of Jakarta's riverside slums and believes Guy can help by reporting this side of Indonesia's story.

Against the squalor and the emerald mountains, the plot wanders and diffuses. Guy's search for a shipment of arms to the Communists and his abrupt affair with Jill is nearly choked out now by the scenery. Weir ("The Last Wave," "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "Gallipoli") focuses on the cosmic rather than the characters: Except for Kwan, they remain strangers lost in Weir's Big Picture. THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY -- At area theaters.