The Lady's Not for Burning
The title appropriate on its own, Luc Besson’s The Lady still does not mention that such is the common polite term in Burma/Myanmar for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Boosted by that symbol of resistance’s expected run for parliament under recently relaxed rules, the “based on a true story” omits unpleasant facts and is unfreckled hagiography set into a background of marital perfection. True, “Ma Suu” was unavailable under house arrest, and during three years’ screenwriting Rebecca Frayn was limited to interviews with her associates, while filming had to be done next door in Thailand with a sprinkling surreptitiously in Myanmar.
Those unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty get the erroneous impression that the courageous heroine was a candidate when the National League for Democracy’s landslide 1990 electoral victory was nullified and its leaders disqualified, killed, imprisoned or exiled. And though the film opens with the assassination of thirty-two-year-old Bogyoke Aung San, her father as well as that of the country’s independence and of its modern army, it does not indicate that the clause barring her from presidential candidacy because of a foreign spouse and “legitimate children” was championed by that iconic father; nor that General Aung San was educated militarily in Japan and sided with that nation to get rid of brutal British colonialism until, Tokyo proving even more brutal, turning back to the Allies.
One activist associate of hers and freed political prisoner complains that “outsiders portray [our] troubles as a morality play: good vs. evil, with no shade of grey in between -- a simplistic picture. The response of the West is equally simplistic, a moral crusade against evil, using such magic wands as sanctions and boycotts. We need everyone to face facts.”
The Lady, too, is an equally simplistic picture.
On the assassination of Aung San and six assistants by soldiers wearing red neckerchiefs which give them “the right to kill you,” his sleeping little girl is whisked off to England, where she grows up (Michelle Yeoh) to be the wife of Oxford Professor Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and housewife-mother of teens Alexander and Kim (Jonathan Woodhouse, Jonathan Raggett).
Her mother’s stroke calls her back to the family home on Rangoon/Yangon’s Inya Lake. It is March 1988, when the nation again exploded in protests and repression, and at General Hospital she witnesses soldiers fire on demonstrators and, inside the facility, kill staff and wounded. Alerted of the arrival of the daughter of the country’s George Washington, ruling generals are keeping tabs on her. Amoral and superstitious, the junta headman consults astrologers, mystics, numerologists and card readers and is advised against killing the woman, for “spirits are more dangerous if they become ghosts,” i.e., martyrs.
Half a world away, Michael has incurable prostate cancer, revealed only to twin brother Anthony (Thewlis again), and little to do except be stoic, smiling, supportive and simpering at home and on visits to his wife’s side. Asia’s highest-paid actress, Yeoh resembles the real-life heroine and is as beautiful, but cannot do much with her part, either, as the woman picked by events “as my father’s daughter” to be the charismatic spokesperson secretary general of the NLD.
Ma Suu, just Suu to Michael, hair flowered like Lady Day and jittery approaching her first public speech, proves a natural leader and rallying point within Burma, a foreign media darling for the world “to watch from the safety of their own country.”
She is harassed, threatened and put under long spells of house arrest, with personal staff dismissed. Michael visits a few times with the boys -- for once screen teens sprout facial fuzz -- but, fearing denial of a reentry permit, she turns down the generals’ encouragement to leave for England. Michael does what he can back there and contacts the right people about the Nobel Peace Prize, cheapened here into a political statement campaign.
Their love for one another is quiet and solid but biopic perfect. Suu’s grief at his death at fifty-three is Yeoh’s moment to curl up on the dark hardwood floor as seen from overhead.
The film does not descend to travelogue scenery and quaintness. But its military rulers are standard heavies, their minions standard trigger-happy youngsters. They, and a truly intolerable situation, are no more upsetting here than their counterparts in most fiction films. For the real thing, turn to Burma VJ; Reporting from a Closed Country.
(Released by Cohen Media Group and rated “R” by MPAA.)