Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Lady

For Country

A Luc Besson and Michelle Yeoh director-actress pairing may make action fans salivate at the prospects of an action flick on the horizon by the prolific French filmmaker and one of Asia's prominent action heroine, but who would have thought that they would be collaborating to bring a solid biography to the silver screen, based on a Nobel laureate who is still, at this point in time, fighting the good fight for freedom of her nation from tyranny. A quick word about the production is that it pulled no punches in its production values and drive to keep everything as authentic as possible, with extensive research done by cast and crew to raise the level of authenticity of aspects being featured, from language to sets and costumes, that one has to salute the effort poured into making this amongst the finest biographical films in recent years.

Based on the story by Rebecca Frayn, who had spent three years interviewing close confidantes of Aung San Suu Kyi, the narrative provides the points of view of both Suu Kyi herself, played by Michelle Yeoh, and her husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis), who because of her political awakening and development, caused plenty of emotionally painful, physical separation and time spent apart through her standing up for and accepting her countrymen's push for democratic leadership, after years of military rule from generalissimos Ne Win to Tan Shwe (Agga Poechit). It also presents different perspectives both within and outside of Burma as crises began to unfold with Suu Kyi a prisoner of her own home and country, and Michael being outside of it trying his best to sound out her, and Burma's plight. Then there's the sacrifice of family for country, where a breakup of the family unit was something inevitable in order to continue being there for her countrymen and not abandoning them at times of need.

Some, if not most will opt to not pursue lofty goals at the expense of personal, or family, but here it's about the sacrifices one makes for one's beliefs, and the strength, composure and dignity demonstrated when faced with the juvenile, cunning games played by power hungry opposition who are hell bent on staying in power. Rules get broken, and when pushed to a corner, with crackdowns and massacres becoming the order of the day with the wielding of the iron fist, and there's no lack of cruel methods on display here to deal with opposition, from isolation and confinement, to unbelievable genocide committed against mankind.

In a story spanning decades that moves forward and back in time, Besson has a solid hand in knowing the highlights of the many years history to translate for the big screen, going back to the 40s when Suu Kyi's father Aung San, a war and independence hero, got assassinated, right down to her emergence in politics as a force to be reckoned with, and her subsequent house arrest, right up to the recent 2007 rallies and demonstrations by monks that eventually led to a deadly crackdown. The Lady presents Besson an opportunity to move away from his relatively family friendly fare of late with the Arthur and the Invisibles series, and also to perform an about turn from the usual action flicks, for something a lot more serious in gravitas, and needless to say the importance of getting the film right in most, if not all counts, as much as a filmmaker can with the resources at his disposal.

As such, some may feel that the film is relatively lightweight in its coverage of politics, although I must add that being confined to one's home in the prominent years of one's political life doesn't make for a smooth translation on screen, as there's only so much that one can do within the fantastic recreation of Suu Kyi's lakeside home. Instead a softer, more heartfelt approach through a love story opened up Suu Kyi as a character who's a lot more down to earth, than just a democracy icon. Besson's knack for handling strong female characters couldn't be more pronounced here, with plenty of opportunities in scenes to show she does not cower even with gun barrels pointed at her face, nor accept the constant nonsense dished out by the military might.

Despite the lack of action, you can feel Luc Besson's release of glee in channeling that frustration to mocking the military top brass, from their deliberate big moments and silly gestures bordering on the comical, to their illogical superstitions, with characterization being very much in line with our esteemed ex Minister Mentor's comments leaked via WikiLeaks. Almost all generalissimos and their underlings are ridiculously decorated, and make extremely naive calls as if nobody can see through their simple rouse. It's a story of grace versus guns, which in any other typical Besson movie it's no surprise if it comes with preference for the latter, except for The Lady which trades in for the softer power approach.

Some of the best scenes involve how the military junta make life miserable for Suu Kyi with the constant outage of power to her home, and the more emotional one where she's forced to listen to the radio for tuning in to world events, or to desperately try to feel a connection from one of her boys (played by Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse) or husband as they go on a whirlwind tour to promote her running for the Nobel Peace Prize. Powerful imagery and on location shots, credited to anonymous cameramen who helped make the many in-country scenes possible since the filmmakers and Luc himself were given the boot, helped to provide a level of authenticity and allowed for a more documentary look and feel at times, such as that protest march of the monks that gained momentum and grew.

Michelle Yeoh lost quite a lot of weight in order to physically resemble the lead role, and her time spent on researching Suu Kyi was time well spent as she nailed her mimicry down to a pat. Even her lines spoken in Burmese were flawless. Not that I can understand the language, but the large percentage of Burmese audience that I've watched this with were nodding and acknowledging her diction and fluency, as well as her performance of the real life heroine of their lives. In short, they were in awe by her elegance and poise in making Suu Kyi come alive on screen. David Thewlis also shone in his role as the husband standing firmly behind her decision and to make sacrifices knowingly for the greater good, for the benefit of even more people in a country that needs his wife more than he needs her. Together they made their struggle felt, and will seek to move even the most stoic of hearts. And the actors who played the Burmese generals, you guys surely hammed it up effortlessly.

This superb film may be travelling the festival and commercial theatrical circuits now, and will probably pick up a slew of film awards along the way. But what's more important and I'm sure it'll achieve, is to bring the attention of the world towards Suu Kyi's, and Burma's continued plight that seemed to be with no end in sight. You may not be very familiar with what may have transpired over the decades of strife in Burma, but The Lady brings you up to speed with a succinctly packed historical lesson centered around one of the world's enduring icons of freedom and democracy. A definite recommendation for this wonderful effort.

P.S. the particular print at GV Plaza was without any subtitles when the characters speak in Burmese, just so that you are aware.

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