Tony Thomas

The Lady

For topicality, it’s hard to beat the biopic The Lady, on Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

A French-English co-production, it hit Melbourne cinemas in mid-April, concurrently with Suu Kyi’s election to Parliament along with 43 other members of the National League for Democracy. That was virtually a clean sweep of the 45 seats in the by-election.

However, Luc Besson’s film ends in 2007, during the monks’ revolt, with Suu Kyi still under house arrest. The startling arrival of some democratization into Burmese life began in mid-2011 and must have surprised Besson along with every other observer and participant.

The film covers the personal saga of Suu Kyi since her infancy in 1947, and through this depicts (in a few broad strokes) the state of her country. There have been complaints that the film overweights Suu Kyi’s family situation, but her predicaments have been all too real and all too grievous.

Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi not only looks convincingly like the protagonist but learned to speak Burmese fluently. Suu Kyi’s virtues include restraint and dignity and Yeoh follows suit, avoiding histrionics. If anything, this makes her quiet depiction doubly moving, and I confess to getting watery eyes on half a dozen occasions. Yeoh has an expressive face and can do much with little. There is a poetic quality about many of the lingering close-ups, and Eric Serra’s score is not grossly obtrusive.

For Besson, covering 60 years of Suu Kyi’s life in two hours was a problem, solved partly by jumping from her at three, to mother of two teenagers at 40.

The film opens with a bang as her father, independence hero General Aung San, pats his toddler goodbye and goes to his fateful cabinet meeting. Thugs from a rival faction burst in and cut him and his cabinet down with pistols and tommy-guns. (BBC TV recently screened an investigative piece suggesting a disgruntled British ex-ambassador assisted the assassination but the Besson film, wisely, leaves it unexplained).

We observe Suu Kyi and her Oxford-don husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis) in domesticity with their two ungainly teenaged boys. The film gathers pace when she heads back to Rangoon to tend her ailing mother in hospital. There she is confronted by military goons in pursuit of injured students from the March 1988 repressions. This is dramatic licence, as she arrived a bit later than the demonstrations, but the substance was real enough.

In general, I noticed few inaccuracies or blatant fictions in the film. Given the severe censorship in Burma, a lot of its modern history is fuzzy. One example is Suu Kyi’s confrontation with a squad of apparently out-of-control riflemen during her election tour at the town of Danubyu in 1989. This scene is a little ridiculous as the riflemen maintain their stance as per Goya’s “3rd of May” painting, even after she passes through them. But it’s a movie, after all.

One version in the accounts is that the captain in charge was within seconds of shooting her down (but a major intervened), another that the episode was a pantomime to shock her into subservience. The film not only plumps for the first version, but has Burma’s mad General Ne Win shoot the captain personally for over-provocation, which I am assured is nonsense. 

The film has been criticized for portraying the generals as unmitigated (and ugly) villains. Unfortunately, the generals earned this, and ex-commander Than Shwe does have frog-like features. One problem I had was distinguishing him from his predecessor Ne Win. Certainly the film will go down badly with the current, democratizing group of ex-generals, currently putting up at least a front of benevolence in hopes that the West will lift all the long-standing sanctions.

Some of the most horrific scenes include the conditions at Insein Prison, Rangoon, where dissidents were dumped into kennels originally designed by the British for guard dogs. Another vignette, also true, is of army-men in the border wars using lines of prisoners  as human mine-detectors.

The film was mostly shot in Thailand with interspersed Burmese footage, especially Rangoon’s magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda.  To my eyes, the sets and crowds were convincing. The credits say some local footage was shot by young undercover filmers. Some of this breed got 20-plus years gaol terms after the 2007 revolt; one trusts they are among the nearly 70% of political prisoners recently released.

The main set, Suu Kyi’s lakeside bungalow, was elaborately re-created with even its axes in the correct alignment. Besson himself did some scouting and filming undercover in Burma. Yeoh met Suu Kyi in 2010 but on a return visit in 2011 was refused admission to the country. 

The film never flags in interest, even though Suu Kyi’s 15 years in house arrest offers few opportunities for drama. Naturally Besson makes the most of her painful separation from husband and sons, and her gritty choice to stay in Burma rather than tend the bedside of her dying spouse in Oxford. (Hope I’m not spoiling the plot but this is all well-known).

One puzzle is that Besson chooses some rather bland extracts from the speech of Suu Kyi’s son Alex at Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize award in 1991. Punchier stuff is all there on YouTube. Incidentally, Suu Kyi donated her USD 1.3m prize to a Burmese health foundation. Does anyone know what Barack Obama did with his equivalent prize-money?

The viewer has a lot of absorb, including for example, a throwaway line about currency demonetization, which explains much of what the 1988 revolt was about.

I wasn’t aware that husband Michael Aris had an identical twin brother Anthony (also, would you believe, a scholar of Tibet) and the two on-screen, both played by Thewlis, had me cross-eyed in perplexity.

The film ends on a mildly high note in 2007, with Suu Kyi still in detention but enjoying rapport with a crowd of monks who have gathered outside her fence. Again I’m not sure this occurred but don’t really mind.

Tony Thomas filmed material for his Melbourne presentations on Burma on trips in 2009 and 2011.


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