(2011) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong, Flint Bangkok, William Hope, Victoria Sanvalli, Danny Toeng, Nay Myo Thant. Directed by Luc Besson
One of the most compelling political figures in the world today is largely unknown in the United States, yet she has won the Nobel Peace Prize and is iconic in Asia and Europe for her courageous stand against the repressive military junta which rules Burma (or Myanmar as they like to call it) with an iron fist. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi and her story has been one waiting to be told.
Her father, Aung San had been a leader in the fight for Burmese independence from the English and had been moving to take the country into democracy when he was assassinated in 1947. He was and still is revered in Burma and his daughter Suu Kyi (Yeoh) lived in exile, in England where she had since married a bookish professor at Oxford, Michael Aris (Thewlis). They had two children together; Kim (Raggett) and Alexander (Woodhouse).
In 1988, Suu Kyi’s mother got seriously ill following a stroke so she journeyed back to Burma to be with her mom. At the time, the country was smack dab in the middle of the 8888 Uprising which was being brutally repressed by the government. Suu Kyi saw soldiers shooting unarmed students and doctors and was horrified by the carnage. In the meantime, students and professors at the local university, heavily involved in the uprising, saw Suu Kyi as a symbol of her father and for democracy and were eager to get her involved. Reluctantly at first, she began to take part in the protests.
Her one or two week trip would stretch out as the Uprising went on. Suu Kyi became the symbol the students hoped she would be and the people began to rally around her. Finally, when the government allowed the elections Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy demanded, they were shocked to discover that the NLD had won 392 seats in Parliament against only 5 for the reigning government, with Suu Kyi the new Prime Minister of Burma. That could not be allowed and the government voided the election.
The detestable Sein Lwin, the head of the military dictatorship, knew he couldn’t kill her outright; her father was a martyr and he was trouble enough. Killing Suu Kyi and making a martyr out of her as well might be too much for even his well-armed soldiers to control. He needed to break her spirit and make her a non-factor.
That job is charged to Win Thein (Thant), an ambitious and fiendishly clever Colonel. He placed the erstwhile Prime Minister under house arrest, confining her to the lovely lakeside home where she’d grown up, where she had last seen her father alive and where her mother eventually passed away. Most of her colleagues in the NLD were imprisoned or disappeared entirely.
She endured the loneliness of her imprisonment, surrounded by trigger-happy guards who’d like nothing better than to see her dead. Michael, knowing how precarious her safety was, initiated a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize for his wife, which she won in 1991. Unable to attend, her son Alexander gave a moving speech in her absence which she heard over a battery-operated radio despite attempts of her guards to prevent her from hearing it.
However, in 1998 her husband Michael discovered that he had terminal prostate cancer. Suu Kyi was now presented with a horrible choice; return to Oxford to be at her husband’s side and never be allowed to return to Burma (effectively negating the work and suffering they’d done for democracy in Burma over all those years) or remain under house arrest, knowing she would never see her husband again.
Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous people of our time and her story is one that has needed to be told. It has, in fact appeared onscreen in John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon as well as the recent documentary They Call It Myanmar. However, this might be the most ambitious film about her yet. French filmmaker Besson, mostly known for the action movies he’s produced (including The Fifth Element, Taken and the recent Lockout) goes out of his comfort zone here.
The result is spectacular. Using his long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast he captures some beautiful images of the countryside (some of which was filmed illicitly by Besson himself during a visit to Myanmar) as well as of the people. Many of the extras were Burmese and during segments in which Suu Kyi was giving speeches, filming had to be stopped because the extras were crying.
Much of that is due to the performance of Yeoh. This was a role she was born to play and she gives Oscar-caliber work here. It is in my opinion the best performance of her career and that’s saying something about an actress who is one of the finest ever produced in Asia. She captures Suu Kyi’s inner strength and grace, as well as her fierce resolve. It doesn’t hurt that Yeoh has a very strong resemblance to the real Suu Kyi.
Thewlis who has done some fine work of his own, is never better than he is here. His Michael Aris is an academic with a heart of gold; well-read and as committed to the cause of democracy in Burma as his wife is. His sacrifice is as almost as great as hers, although he at least had the succor of family around him. Thewlis gives him a bit of a stiff upper lip but never fails to keep the man’s inner warmth close to the surface.
This is a powerful movie and the testament to it was the expressions of the people who had seen it on the way out of the theater – these were the expressions of people who had been deeply moved and many faces were streaked by tears. While there were times I felt the focus was too much on Michael and the boys, the end result is that this movie is about a portrait in courage Kennedy would have approved.
For some reason, critics have been giving this film a shellacking, including some that I have respected over the years. One went so far as to call the film “fawning” and compared it unfavorably to They Call It Myanmar which I haven’t seen yet and I’m sure is a fine film on its own, but they are different fruit entirely. This is one in which I say don’t listen to the critics and go and experience it for yourself. It’s a powerful, moving cinematic experience that shouldn’t be missed.
REASONS TO GO: Yeoh gives a bravura performance, quite possibly the best of her stellar career. Authentic and powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have focused less attention on Michael and more on Suu Kyi.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a few disturbingly bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Besson constructed the set of Suu Kyi’s home to near-perfection, using photographs and satellite images for accuracy. He even set the home so that the sun rises through the same windows as they do in Suu Kyi’s actual home.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The movie inexplicably has received poor reviews.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burma VJ
BURMA LOVERS: While much of the movie was filmed in Thailand (particularly the scenes set in Rangoon), some of the footage was taken in Burma as well.
FINAL RATING: 10/10