Sunday, April 15, 2012

Suu Kyi’s Choice

Burmese soldiers police the estate of Aung San Suu Kyi 
(Michelle Yeoh), who is under house arrest.

The Lady
Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Rebecca Frayn
Starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I knew little about the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—recently elected to the parliament of Burma (also referred to as Myanmar)—before seeing Beyond Rangoon in 1995. In that movie, the main character, played by Patricia Arquette, stumbles into, while on vacation, the violent upheaval taking place in Burma. At one point, standing in a crowd, she sees Suu Kyi, the hope of the oppressed Burmese people, walking toward her; the older woman, with a Mona Lisa smile, gazes at her in a way that seems to impart an otherworldly serenity. (Indeed, my husband, fellow blogger Robert Rosen, was similarly affected by our filmic encounter with Suu Kyi—he talked about the value of serenity for months afterward.)

The new biopic The Lady (its title echoing Suu Kyi’s honorific in her native country) contains a similar scene, only this time the stakes are much higher: With Gandhian courage, Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), the epitome of grace under pressure, slowly makes her way through a phalanx of soldiers, who warn her to stop while aiming their rifles directly at her face. Such is the power of someone willing to die for a cause, in this case democracy for a country that has anointed her its savior. We learn that she is, in a way, an accidental savior, having been born the daughter of a general who became a martyr in the fight for democracy, and having arrived from her home in England to care for her dying mother just as Burma is exploding with revolt and bloody crackdowns.

Eventually, Suu Kyi and her family—her husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), an Oxford academic, and their two sons—realize that if she leaves Burma, she will never be allowed to re-enter the country. And so Aris and the boys content themselves with visits—until the time comes when, in a tactical ploy, they are denied entry. “You have the freedom to choose: your family or your country,” a government official tells Suu Kyi. “What kind of freedom is that?” she answers.

I had to wonder if Suu Kyi’s husband was really that consistently supportive. As a teacher dealing with that part of the world, he too was passionate about democracy in Burma, but the movie never indicates the slightest hesitation as monumental decisions are made, despite the months and then years that pass without the boys seeing their mother. (You can almost hear hearts breaking when they inevitably lose the connection during their occasional phone calls, which Suu Kyi makes from the British embassy.)

Suu Kyi spends much of the film under house arrest—the house being her family’s, the general’s, a grand if decaying mansion on a lake. (You may recall the news reports a few years ago when an American man swam across the lake to Suu Kyi’s house, thus jeopardizing her freedom.) With its terraces overlooking the water, it looks beautiful, as do the orchids in Suu Kyi’s hair and her colorful long skirts and delicate blouses.

A dead ringer for Suu Kyi, the ultra-slim Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) conveys not only the activist’s bravery and dignity but also the anguish she suffers as her own sacrifices become her husband’s and sons’ as well. In depicting Suu Kyi’s remarkable story through the prism of her family life, screenwriter Rebecca Frayn and director Luc Besson have made their own wise choice.