Saturday, 4 February 2012

Channeling the Lady

Movie poster for The Lady
Last night I was invited to the Hong Kong premiere of The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and David Thewlis as her husband Michael Aris.

The preview hosted by Amnesty International was shown at The Grand Cinema in Elements and many socialites were there as well as businessman Allan Zeman.

As we filed into the movie theatre late, there were a flurry of flashing lights as Yeoh, director Luc Besson had their pictures taken, and everyone else craning their necks to see what was going on.

Then the movie started late, as Yeoh and Besson went to each theatre to say a few words before the screening, that they hoped people would enjoy the film. Besson remarked that making the movie impacted everyone who worked on it profoundly and changed them.

One would think The Lady would be a dramatic story to tell -- a gentile petite woman who is unarmed goes head-to-head with the Burmese generals who have a shameful human rights record. I remember one news weekly magazine's headline of "The Lady and The Generals".

However, not many know the story of Suu Kyi and so this biopic tries hard to give as full a picture as possible, which at times was tedious and the dialogue a bit wooden.

It is told in a series of flashbacks that starts with her father, Aung San, a general promoting democracy who is killed in a massacre by rivals. Later we see Suu Kyi in Oxford, married to Aris with two young children.

One day she gets a phone call that her mother has had a stroke and she needs to go back to see her. And it just so happens when she goes to Burma students are massacred on the streets for protesting. It is then that others who still have great respect for her father, ask Suu Kyi to lead the country to democracy, much to the chagrin of the generals.

General Than Shwe was known to be extremely superstitious and regularly consulted a soothsayer. According to the movie the fortune teller advised him not to kill Suu Kyi as a ghost would be more difficult to deal with. As a result he did everything else in his power to try to limit the people's access to her, which eventually led to house arrest for a total of 15 years.

Michelle Yeoh plays the role of Aung San Suu Kyi
We also see the relationship between her and Aris. They both struggle with the long distance relationship along with her boys who grow up without her. We see Aris get his diagnosis for pancreatic cancer in 1997, forcing Suu Kyi into a very difficult position -- if she leaves the country she will never be allowed back into Burma again. They manage to go to Burma many times, making these scenes tedious, but perhaps are needed to help show her family her devotion to her country and how the people  depend on her.

In the end the movie gives some good background for people to understand the plight of the Burmese and highlight Suu Kyi's efforts and patience in waiting out the generals, hoping they will finally relinquish control.

For Yeoh this is a role of a lifetime -- she apparently immediately agreed to the script and set about learning Burmese. In the beginning she doesn't quite look like Suu Kyi, but towards the end, perhaps with less makeup, at certain angles she bears an uncanny resemblance. Thewlis and the two young actors playing her children didn't have much to work with script-wise which is too bad. The movie's style is one of few words, but one would think more dialogue may have been needed to express various emotions.

Nevertheless, hopefully The Lady will give the general public a greater insight into what's going on in Burma and follow its progress.

Towards the end Yeoh looks very similar to Suu Kyi
I remember when Aris was denied visas to visit Suu Kyi when he was dying of cancer, and was sad to hear he was never able to see her again when he died on his 53rd birthday in 1999.

In 2003 I interviewed some Burmese refugees in Vancouver; they were all holding out hope for Suu Kyi who was arrested after the Depayin massacre when 70 people associated with the National League for Democracy were killed by a government-sponsored mob.

And then in 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks came out to protest against the government. They marched to her house and despite being under house arrest, she made a brief appearance to receive their blessings.

I had hoped then that things in Burma would change, but it was not to be until last November when the authorities released Suu Kyi from house arrest. Her son Kim came to see her after 10 years of being apart. Amazingly this all happened while Besson was filming The Lady. Yeoh recalled watching the moment on television and saying while they were dumbfounded and amazed, they were optimistic but also worried about what would happen next.

The authorities seem to have changed things around for now and Suu Kyi has registered her name as a candidate for the upcoming elections in April -- will the government refuse to accept the results or finally allow the country's Lady to step up? We shall see.

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