On Friday the 13th, the long-awaited, much delayed biopic about Burma's most iconic figure, Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in select theaters. The film is titled The Lady, not to be confused with last year's The Iron Lady about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The title is appropriate because this was the term of endearment used by the people of Burma when the ruling military junta made it illegal for anyone to even say her name. This movie was supposed to be released last fall for Oscar consideration. I think it was released in a couple theaters in New York and Los Angeles, but it did not receive a single nomination. I'm not sure what the Oscar rules are, but I hope that it gets consideration for next year's Oscars. If the film is just now getting its national roll out, it deserves a shot at Oscar Gold (particularly Michelle Yeoh in the title role).
When I heard about this film, I was excited because Aung San Suu Kyi's life is definitely worth a biopic treatment. Being a fan of biopics, I'll see them all. It's become my favourite genre. There are great ones (Gandhi, Evita and Kundun come to mind), good ones (Milk, The Queen and The Iron Lady), and boring ones (Nixon, J. Edgar and Coco Before Chanel). Regardless of what I may feel about them upon leaving the theater, I will go see them. Several years ago, I thought that Michelle Yeoh would be the perfect actress to play Aung San Suu Kyi. When I found out that she was the one who pushed this project, I was pleased. Yeoh is one of my favourite actresses and one I want to see in more films. I consider her to be the most beautiful Asian actress I've ever seen. She's just a beautiful woman, period. She can play any role, not just Asian specific ones. Out of all the well known Asian actresses, though, Michelle Yeoh actually comes the closest to resembling Aung San Suu Kyi, so she's a natural to play the iconic figure.
Friday after work, I rushed downtown to pick up my favourite meal at Cafe Yumm! and head to the theater to watch this film at the 7:10 p.m. showing. I feared that it might be sold out and that I'd have to see a later show, which would mean catching one of the last buses back to my neighbourhood (one of the things I miss about living downtown is that I never worried about time, because everything I wanted to do was within walking distance of my apartment). However, the fear was unfounded. They still had tickets and the film was being shown in one of the smaller theaters at the cinema complex.
I had high expectations going in, because this is one film that I've been wanting to see for years. The problem with high expectations is that the likelihood of disappointment is a big risk. However, as I focused on the film and took it all in, I was impressed. This is a well made motion picture. It's about as close to perfect as you can get. It wouldn't surprise me if French director Luc Besson was aiming for award season nominations. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Whatever it takes to create a quality film is important. Movies rarely get as great as this one does. In fact, this film is a lot like a literary novel. There's even a prologue (the opening scene of a young Aung San Suu Kyi and her father before he goes off to form a government and gets assassinated) and an epilogue (taking place in 2007 when hundreds if not thousands of Buddhist monks in orange saffron robes march across Rangoon to Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where The Lady appears and throws them a flower). In between those two scenes is her life's story.
It's pretty much a straight-forward film, with only a few flashbacks. The action begins when Aung San Suu Kyi receives a fateful phone call that interrupts her domesticated life as the wife of an Oxford University professor. She is informed that her mother has had a stroke, so she does her duty as an only child and returns to Burma. She tells her youngest son, Kim, that she will be gone for a week, or perhaps two. However, at customs back in her home country, she tells the Customs agent that she will be in Burma for however long she's needed. An informant reports back to the General, who then goes to a soothsayer to know how to proceed. The soothsayer warns him that the ghost of a beloved leader has returned and is with this newly arrived visitor.
Some may think that this is cinematic indulgence and literary license, but I actually read a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi over the Christmas holiday and was struck by how superstitious the General who ran Burma was. In fact, he was so superstitious that he made the currency divisible by 9. This meant that instead of the standard banknotes that use numbers like 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, the General had banknotes in amounts like 9, 18, 27, etc. According to the book, but not apparent in the film, the military junta do consider themselves to be Buddhists.
While Suu is back in Burma, caring for her mother, she learns that the political situation has deteriorated and the military is shooting at college students who are protesting the latest government outrage. In a sidenote, as a teenager in the 1980s, I had a Burmese penpal (her name was Candy Tet Tun). I stopped hearing from her in 1988, the year of the student crackdown. I don't know if she died or was sent to prison. I don't know whatever happened to her. Hopefully, she's been alive and well all these years and it was just a natural end of being penpals.
Some university professors approach Suu and tell her that as the daughter of national hero Aung San, only she had the stature to unite the people around a political movement aimed at a democratic Burma. She's reluctant to take on this role, as she had married an English academic and was raising two sons (her oldest, Alexander, is just two years younger than me). However, the people of Burma see something regal in her and she soon rises to the challenge, mesmerizing a crowd of thousands at a main Buddhist pagoda in Rangoon.
The film is beautifully shot and offers nice contrasts between a colourful and beautiful Burma (actually, Thailand stands in for Burma) versus a drab and dreary England. Scenes alternate between Suu's political activities in Burma and her husband's life back in England. There are also scenes of military brutality (though not to excess). Occasionally, her husband and sons would visit her in Burma. In a powerful scene from her life (which was the inspiration for a U2 song, "Walk On"), soldiers train their guns on her and are given the order to shoot if she continues to walk (scene pictured above). She does so fearlessly and the soldiers don't shoot. This incident cemented in peoples' minds that she was a powerful spiritual presence in the country. It is humourous to see Burmese people tell one another about that incident, with the usual exaggerations that inevitably occur.
Scenes of her house arrest and the imprisonment of members of the National League for Democracy add extra weight to the film. When she wins the Nobel Peace Prize, it was especially heartening to watch the mini-drama of Aung San Suu Kyi anxiously eager to hear the ceremony on a BBC broadcast (the power goes out and a search for a battery-powered radio goes on). When an orchestra plays Pachebel's Canon in D, I just about lost it! There were so many times in the film where I cried my eyes out. I tried to stay strong, but obviously, this woman and her story resonates deep within my soul. I rarely cry at movies, but I couldn't help myself here. That piece of classical music was actually my favourite when I did not like classical music much. Now, because of its over usage in wedding ceremonies, it has become somewhat of a cliche. However, hearing it in the scene from this film matched with Aung San Suu Kyi playing along on her piano, it was just an incredible piece of music. In fact, the musical score throughout this film was touchingly beautiful. I plan to get the soundtrack. Not surprisingly, Eric Serra is the composer, who has done other scores for Luc Besson's film, including my all time favourite film score: La Femme Nikita.
Actor David Thewlis plays Michael Aris, the British academic husband, and Anthony Aris, the twin brother. The separation is especially emotionally tough for him, as the military junta kept denying his visa request to see his wife when she was under house arrest and especially when he was diagnosed with cancer and given anywhere from 6 months to 5 years to live. The military junta tried every tactic to pressure Aung San Suu Kyi to leave Burma, particularly by isolating her and denying visas for her husband and sons. In the biography I read about her, the government even spread lies about her in an attempt to get the people to turn against her. They would print things like that she was a treasonous whore for marrying a foreigner, especially a white man. They also said that her marriage was on the rocks because she refused to leave Burma to see her husband, even after he was diagnosed with cancer (since she left her life in England to care for her mother in Burma until she died). However, if Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma, she would not be allowed back into the country and the democracy movement would be fractured without a compelling leader.
Last week, I attended a World Affairs Council event and saw a Russian lady I hadn't seen in several months. So we talked and I mentioned this film. She had never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, so I told her the basic story and was shocked when this lady was not impressed. She said that Suu should have chosen her husband and left Burma. However, based on biographies and what is known about Michael Aris, he was supportive of his wife's decision to remain in Burma. I believe that both knew that she had a unique destiny. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi has written about how she made Michael promise her that if she married him, and at some point, duty calls for her in Burma, that he would allow her to fulfill that obligation. People might not understand her decisions, but I certainly do. The love story of Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris shows what true, transcendant and unconditional love is all about. They both knew that she had a special destiny to fulfill and they did their best within that confining obligation. In the film, Suu gives her husband permission to divorce her and remarry, but he refuses. Despite their separation, he still loves her deeply.
Aris passes away in 1999 and when Aung San Suu Kyi receives the news, she collapses on the floor in grief. Her grief is so palpable that I once again shed a few tears. It's probably a good thing that I was unable to snag a date for this film or to entice others in the Movies & Meaning group that I participate in to come along. It was embarrassing enough to think that people on either side of me possibly seeing me wipe my eyes a few times, it would've been much more so if people I know saw me doing that! But I can't help it. This film just resonates with me at a deep level. Had this film been released last year, it would have beat The Adjustment Bureau as the best film of the year. I expect it to be the best film I will see this year, even beating the long awaited adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac novel, On The Road. It truly is a film for the ages. I left the theater feeling inspired towards a life of greater spiritual awareness and I also felt a deep sense of gratitude to God for blessing us with the grace of an amazing soul on our planet right now. This film is definitely worth seeing and undoubtedly, I will see it again in theaters as well as buying it when it's on DVD. It may be redundant to say, but I love this film. It truly is the best a biopic could ever get. A well-made motion picture and a beautiful tribute to the world's most inspiring spiritual leader.
Merci beaucoup to French director Luc Besson for taking on the challenge of making this film. Glad to see that a high quality biopic on a much admired international figure could be made outside of Hollywood financing. Michelle Yeoh deserves a lot of credit as well for finding the script and shopping it around for a producer and director. Even if it did not earn the raves of film critics, receive any major film awards, or even earn much at the box office, it is an important film and inspiring. Thank God that it will live on in DVD where more people will likely see it. However, if it plays at a theater near you, please make the trip to see it. You'll be glad that you did.
If there were only two things that I could have added to the film, I would have shown a couple of scenes of her in meditation as well as her telling people more of her views on politics and spirituality. I also would have featured U2's song "Walk On" somewhere in the film. Those are only minor points. Some of the details I love about the film include her son wearing a U2 shirt (in the "Walk On" video, Bono wears a shirt with Aung San Suu Kyi on it) and that the Burmese language is featured in some scenes, particularly the famous speech that Aung San Suu Kyi gave at the pagoda. I've never heard Burmese spoken before, so it was a nice detail worth hearing to lend a lot of realism to the film.
What else can I say but that this film is perhaps the best biopic I've ever seen. And I had high expectations. Luc Besson has created a masterpiece and Michelle Yeoh is masterful in her portrayal. She shows her acting abilities and should easily transition out of action films into more serious fare (I hope that she will play The Tiger Mother next in a film adaptation of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In January at Amy Chua's booksigning, I told her that she should sell the movie rights to her book to Michelle Yeoh and her eyes just lit up and she said, "That's who was interested in buying the rights to my book!"). I can't wait to see this movie again, perhaps next week. Hopefully, it will expand to more theaters and garner more attention. However, I think most Americans are not interested in international stuff, so this film will fly under the radar. Just another indication that I'm in the wrong country. I also wish I could meet a woman who is as impressed by Aung San Suu Kyi as I am. Perhaps I need to start looking for a Burmese community in Portland!