Talk about perfect timing! Besides having just won a long fought-for parliamentary seat in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is also the subject of two newly released films. Placed under house arrest for 15 years by the ruling military junta (who changed the country’s name from Burma in 1989), Suu Kyi became a worldwide symbol for democracy. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 sealed her fate as an icon for nonviolent activism.
Appearing in the documentary “They Call It Myanmar: The Lifting of the Curtain,” Suu Kyi remains resolved. In spite of having spent over a decade isolated from those she loved — both family and followers, the slender daughter of assassinated General Aung San radiates poise.
Clandestinely shot by Cornell physics professor Robert H. Lieberman, the film unravels like a picturesque travelogue, showing off some of Myanmar’s most stunning scenery. But, unlike an official tourists’ guide, it also reveals the country’s seedy underbelly.
For more than two years, Lieberman shot 120 hours of footage often with a hidden camera and sometimes chased by authorities.
Capturing the beauty of local culture, he lovingly frames Burmese faces often adorned with beige-colored paste to ward off the 85-degree tropical heat. Then, training his camera on the impoverished, he spotlights those who pawn their blankets each morning in exchange for bus fare to get to work. After coming home and cooking dinner, they pawn their dishes to buy back their bedding so they can sleep. Children of poor families that can’t afford school end up working as young as nine in a country, ironically, rich in natural resources.
With 132 spoken languages, Myanmar is diverse with a complex history of colonization and dictatorship. Lieberman shows everything from hill tribes, whose lives haven’t changed in over a hundred years, to the urban poor surviving under the merciless government. One intriguing scene features Buddhist pilgrims on their way to a mountain temple. With an 80 percent Buddhist population that believes ‘any suffering is a result of something done in a previous life,’ political progress is slow.
After winning independence from Britain in 1948, Burma suffered a military coup that killed Suu Kyi’s father. Its current regime is one of the most brutal employing torture and imprisonment without recourse. Many of its educated, especially doctors, left the country leaving medical treatment in the hands of the untrained.
The best thing about having professor Leiberman as the filmmaker is his ability to present difficult material in an understandable style. The worst part is his brusque manner while questioning subjects in his abrasive voice.
While the accompanying music is quite good, the same can’t be said for the feature narrative, “The Lady.” Here, mood-shattering rock music seems inappropriate for this film’s message about love.
Director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”, “La Femme Nikita”) seems an odd choice for telling the deeply personal story of Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) and her British husband Michael Aris (David Thewis).
After receiving a call that her mother is sick, Suu Kyi leaves her family in England to nurse her in Myanmar. But upon seeing the mess her country has become and sought out by the opposition, she’s determined to stay. Alarmed, the military begins plotting ways to get rid of her, including placing her under house arrest. Then, David learns he’s terminally ill.
One glaring error in this film is that almost everyone speaks English, even when the exchange is between two native Burmese like Suu Kyi and her mother. Yeoh, a Hong Kong action star who was deported by Burmese authorities for portraying Suu Kyi, seems overly glamorous for this role. Besson mistakenly creates a Suu Kyi that’s almost regal, even having her ascend above a crowd of supporters. For someone who sacrificed 15 years, unable to watch her children grow up or to be with her husband as he was dying, this hardly seems an authentic image.
Thewlis, though, is astonishingly believable as a husband whose unadulterated love for his wife allows him to understand her need to save her country. It appears that the real Suu Kyi is now poised to do just that.
“They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” shows at Metro Cinemas. “The Lady” shows at the Harvard Exit theater.