The Lady from Rangoon

The Lady
(Frank/UK, 135 min.)
Dir. Luc Besson, Writ. Rebecca Frain
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse.
Photo Magali Bragard © 2011 EuropaCorp, Left Bank Pictures, France 2 Cinéma
Aung San Suu Kyi made headlines recently after achieving a victory that was over twenty years in the making. Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest for trying to bring democracy to the military-oppressed Burma and, following her release in 2010, she ran in a by-election for a seat in the lower house of parliament in April 2012. She won, as did 42 other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD), thus making her the official Leader of the Opposition. The recent headlines of Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarkable journey could therefore not make the release of The Lady any timelier. The film conveys the strength and philosophy of Suu Kyi, which should inspire those who have followed her journey or those who are discovering it only now. The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is arguably a great one; however, aside from the portrayal of The Lady herself, Suu Kyi’s story doesn’t quite achieve greatness in The Lady

Photo Vincent Perez © 2011 EuropaCorp, Left Bank Pictures, France 2 Cinéma.
Director Luc Besson is an odd choice to helm a film about such a passive leader. Mostly known for his work on sleek action films such as Léon: The Professional or The Fifth Element, Besson might not immediately seem like a proper fit; however, his Professional and La Femme Nikita offer strong female protagonists, so this story about the resilient “Lady of Rangoon” is not actually that far out of his realm if one looks at it closely. Besson’s trade as an action-pic director ensures that the film starts off with a jolt.

The Lady begins with a scene from Suu’s childhood: her father, Aung San, seems poised to lead Burma in a new direction; however, he and his peers are assassinated by the military in a radically-stage coup. The Lady continues with the rapid-fire pace of a political thriller, with the adult Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) returning to Burma from London in 1988. Suu’s mother has suffered a stroke, so the London-housewife goes back home to care for her mother in hospital. Suu’s return coincides with a wave of riots and military violence. The timing of her arrival puts the military at greater unease – the appearance of the daughter of Burma’s “founding father” at such a time of political unrest can hardly be coincidence, can it?

Besson plays out Suu’s reminder of her father’s struggle via a series of sequences in which she witnesses violence first-hand, or discusses politics with followers of her father’s beliefs. There is a feel of espionage to the drama, as the film cross-cuts from the origins of Suu’s rise to scenes of the military conspiring against her. Her main foe is General Ne Win, a stock-type figure of self-serving evil played by Htun Lin. A highly superstitious man, General Ne Win fears Aung San Suu Kyi more in death than in life: the last thing Burma needs, he thinks, is another martyr for democracy.
Photo Magali Bragard © 2011 EuropaCorp, Left Bank Pictures, France 2 Cinéma
The Lady does an excellent job in telling the story of Aung San Suu Kyi’s early campaign for democracy. By intertwining the context of the military oppression into scenes of Suu Kyi’s travels across Burma to inspire the people, The Lady conveys the philosophy, conviction, strength, and perseverance of its subject. Especially good are scenes in which Suu Kyi defies the military my gracefully refusing to stand down to a wall of armed guards, or the scene of her first major political rally – a speech that Yeoh delivers remarkably well if one considers that she learned Burmese for the role.

It’s once Suu Kyi becomes a political prisoner in her home, though, that The Lady starts to stutter, which is disappointing if one considers that this is the segment of Suu Kyi’s life that most strongly shaped her in the public eye. The pace and tone of the film change gears once Suu Kyi is under house arrest: it drops the engaging thriller dynamic entirely and careens into family drama. Isolated from her family, Aung San Suu Kyi continues the fight, more determined than ever to bring peace to Burma. The film shows the efforts of her husband, Michael Aris (played by a David Thewlis, notably strong in a dual role as Michael and his brother, Anthony), in trying to reunite Suu with her family, as well as aiding her cause by bringing attention and aid from the international community. He even gets her a much deserved Noble Peace Prize.
Photo Magali Bragard © 2011 EuropaCorp, Left Bank Pictures, France 2 Cinéma
Although the storyline of family ties does much to illustrate Suu Kyi’s personal sacrifice, it does less to aid the story of Burma’s fight for change, especially when the plinky piano notes veer things into melodrama. For example, The Lady explains in great detail the difficulty that Michael has in retaining travel visas so that he and the children may visit; meanwhile, as Burma readies itself for the first democratic election during Suu Kyi’s struggle, the film gets the business over with in a quick cut to the results. The NLD wins a whopping 392 out of 485 seats, but the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are outlived by the military’s refusal to relinquish power. Democracy is over before one even knows that it began. It would have been nice to see how the fight of Aung San Suu Kyi raged inside and outside her house during the election – her house in Rangoon, not her flat in London. 
Photo Magali Bragard © 2011 EuropaCorp, Left Bank Pictures, France 2 Cinéma
Regardless of the flawed pacing and selective storytelling, the film still serves its subject moderately well. By casting Michelle Yeoh as the fabled Lady of Rangoon, The Lady shows Aung San Suu Kyi as a woman of quiet conviction and grace. Yeoh is a soft-spoken powerhouse, and in the scenes in which The Lady allows her to share Suu Kyi’s philosophy and spirit, Yeoh communicates effectively her subject’s humanely pedagogical skills and her remarkable devotion to her cause. The actress is also such a perfect match for subject that Besson doesn’t even need to transpose Yeoh’s image on the magazine covers and photographs that are used throughout the film. The Lady is also gorgeously lensed by DP Thierry Arbogast, who captures The Lady and Burma in beautiful colours and soft light. Alternating between shots of Suu and Burma in isolation, and close-ups of Suu and Michael on the telephone, the epic scope of the film serves the story well more often than not.

Worth seeing mostly to appreciate the philosophy and sacrifice of a woman who is still in the process of realizing an urgent cause, The Lady works primarily because of Yeoh’s triumphant performance as Aung San Suu Kyi. The final freeze frame with which Besson ends the film might be seen by some as further evidence of the film’s sentimentality. On the other hand, Yeoh’s graceful tossing of a flower also serves as a necessary extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fight to the audience. 

Rating: ½ (out of ★★★★★)  

The Lady plays at The Bytowne until May 17. It then moves to the World Exchange Empire 7 on May 18 and then to the Mayfair (Bank) from June 8-13.