Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi in THE LADY (2011)

Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi

Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi in THE LADY (2011) [image source: Digital Spy]

THE BOTTOM LINE

A quality biopic on a world-famous, Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist for freedom, human rights, and democracy, this film highlights the price that Aung San Suu Kyi paid in her personal life for her selflessness and heroism in her public life and work.

THE LADY on Amazon Instant VideoProduction: Andy HarriesVirginie SillaLuc Besson

Direction: Luc Besson

Screenwriting: Rebecca Frayn

Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast

Starring: Michelle YeohDavid Thewlis

Supporting: Jonathan RaggettJonathan WoodhouseSusan WooldridgeBenedict Wong

INTRODUCTION

This French-English co-production is based on the true life story of Aung San Suu Kyi,  the Burmese opposition politician whose quest for democracy in Burma and many years as a political prisoner of the Burmese military junta led to her receipt, in absentia, of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

PLOT SUMMARY

2-year-old Suu with her father

2-year-old Suu with her father, General Aung San, in THE LADY (2011) [ image source: michelleyeoh.info/Movie/thelady.html ‎]

Act One begins with a scene from the childhood of Aung San Suu Kyi (portrayed as a two year-old child by the super-cute Soraya La-ong Ake). Her father, General Aung San (Phoe Zaw), says goodbye to her and leaves the family home for a meeting with stakeholders in the creation of a new Burmese democracy. A key figure in the peaceful liberation of Burma from British colonial rule (and, although this is not made clear in the film, Burma’s Prime Minister), he intends to turn its government over to the people after it becomes independent. However, he and the delegates at the meeting are assassinated in a coup by soldiers loyal to General U Saw, a former Prime Minister who wants a military dictatorship. We flash-forward to Michael Aris (Thewlis), Aung San Suu Kyi’s (Yeoh) husband and an Oxford University professor, learning that he has a terminal illness. He and Suu Kyi are geographically separated: he is in London, she in Rangoon. We do not yet know why they are not together (except that it is not due to marital problems) or what disease he has. The couple’s two sons are with Michael in London.

Yeoh and Thewlis

Suu (Yeoh) and her husband Michael (Thewlis) in THE LADY (2011) [ image source: michelleyeoh.info/Movie/thelady.html‎ ]

Act Two is a series of flashback sequences that fill in the history between General Aung San’s assassination and the separation of Michael and Suu Kyi. Having married Michael, a scholar of Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture, she moved with him to London, where the couple raised their two sons, Alexander (Woodhouse) and Kim (Raggett). However, she must return to Burma when her mother, Daw Khin Kyi (Marian Yu), has a stroke. She assumes that it will be a short stay, but she arrives in the midst of a brutal repression of democracy proponents by the military dictatorship, which sees her return as a threat. Under government surveillance, she tries to maintain a low profile despite being asked by major opposition leaders to become the leader of the overall pro-democracy movement. However, while visiting with her mother in Rangoon’s main hospital, she witnesses a massacre of pro-democracy protesters by government soldiers. This key event convinces her that she needs to be involved in efforts to gain freedom, protection of human rights, and democracy for Burmese citizens. Although her party wins a popular election, the military regime refuses to recognize the will of the people and ultimately places Suu under house arrest.

Suu (Yeoh) as activist for Burmese democracy

Suu (Yeoh) as activist for Burmese democracy in THE LADY (2011) [ image source: michelleyeoh.info/Movie/thelady.html ]

Act Three deals with two major themes: Suu Kyi’s non-violent political resistance efforts in Burma and her separation from her family. As the movie poster above makes clear, the choice between country and family with which she is faced is the ongoing crisis that she is forced to resolve when she learns of her husband’s terminal illness.

BACKGROUND

Besson directs Yeoh

Luc Besson directs Yeoh during the shooting of THE LADY (2011) [ image source: michelleyeoh.info/Movie/thelady.html ]

French director Luc Besson’s previous movies were in the action, science fiction, and martial arts genres, many featuring strong female leads. According to the Los Angeles Times, he was enthusiastic to do a film about a real-life heroine.

The writing of the screenplay for The Lady took three years. According to IMDB, screenwriter Frayn used a good part of this time to piece together an accurate account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s story by interviewing key members of her inner circle.

Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian actress well-known for her roles in 1990s Hong Kong action movies, broke into Hollywood cinema with her performance in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and achieved international fame opposite leading actor Chow Yun Fat in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). During the filming of The Lady, she traveled to Burma to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest had been lifted. When Yeoh returned to Burma (now officially called Myanmar) after the movie was released, she was detained at the Rangoon airport and deported a few hours later. This action was apparently in retaliation for her portrayal of Suu Kyi. Besson, however, was allowed to visit Suu Kyi.

COMMENTARY

This movie approaches Suu Kyi’s story from the perspective of her relationship with her husband and children. Some critics (such as Roger Ebert) faulted it for taking a love-story angle, preferring a more political story line. Real women (and men, too), however, have personal and family lives that they must live while they pursue the work that they have chosen (in Suu Kyi’s case, her work was thrust upon her, in a sense). I wonder if the movie would have been faulted if it had been about a male activist, seen from the point-of-view of his wife. In any case, I did not disagree with the screenwriter’s and director’s approach to the story, but I did think the movie ran long. This flaw is due to the editing, not the screenwriting, directing, or acting, of this film.

The DVD of the movie contains, as an “extra,” a short film on Myanmar (as Burma is called today) that would be very funny if its subject matter were not so sad. This short supplements the movie with a more factual view of life under the military regime that continues to rule to this day. Fortunately, Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, has been elected to the lower house of Myanmar’s parliament, and plans to run for its presidency in 2015.

FRISCO KID’s Ratingthree stars

FILM FACTS (via IMDB)

  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Runtime: 132 minutes
  • Sound Mix: Dolby Digital, DTS
  • Color: Color
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1