The Lady deserves better ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Lady deserves better

The Lady
My rating:

As my regular readers may well know, TMBF is quite the socio-political rabble-rouser. I have subscribed to the Facebook feeds of a few Bersih and Bersih-related fanpages, and one or two of them recommended this film as relevant - even inspiring. Indeed, several scenes reminded me of both the demonstrations I attended as well as the civil rights struggles we are currently undergoing (that we are all currently undergoing, even the poor fools who still think everything's fine the way it is). In fact, the exact phrase "free and fair elections" was uttered in the dialogue at one point - the exact thing Bersih is fighting for. A thing that I personally feel very strongly about.

So why don't I like this movie much?

Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) was only two years old when her father, General Aung San was assassinated in 1947 in his efforts to achieve democracy for Burma (now Myanmar). Thirty-nine years later, Suu Kyi is a simple housewife in Oxford, England, wife of lecturer Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and mother to two teenage boys, Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse) and Kim (Jonathan Raggett). When she returns to Burma to visit her dying mother, she witnesses first-hand the oppressive violence of the ruling military junta - and as the daughter of a still-beloved political martyr, she is asked by civil activists to lead a movement for democracy. What started as a short visit becomes a very long absence as Suu Kyi commits herself to her fledgling political party that quickly wins massive support and popularity from the people. But the tyrannical General Ne Win (Htun Lin) will stop at nothing to wear her down, up to and including placing her under a years-long house arrest, and denying visas to her family - even after Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I confess to not knowing much about Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the civil rights movement in Myanmar - other than that, what with having been placed under house arrest for over a decade, her struggle has been long, lonely and of little success. And after watching this movie, I still don't know much about her. It chooses to focus on the domestic side of Suu Kyi's plight - the enforced separation from her husband and children, rather than what she and the National League for Democracy (her political party) went through in trying to bring democracy to her country. So instead of a political drama, what we have here is a tearjerker - and a soppy, sloppy one at that.

The whole point of a biopic is to turn a distant real-life figure into a relatable human character, but the Suu Kyi of this movie simply isn't. She was 43 when she returned to her home country for the first time in decades; she had a long and established life as a wife, mother and academic. So what made her put it all behind to become a political leader? Witnessing first-hand the brutalities of the military junta - which, granted, would be a life-changing experience for many - and then some guys asked her to lead them. To which she said yes, which... is that all she did? Where did she find her strength and courage? Director Luc Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn simply gloss over these questions, and give us nothing more than a beat-by-beat account of her early political career. The history of Suu Kyi and the NLD are treated as nothing more than motions to be gone through.

And then there's Frayn's terribly dull and on-the-nose dialogue. This is a film in which, when Suu Kyi and her colleagues are planning a nationwide tour and some of them balk at traveling to the more remote tribal villages, she says, "Democracy must include everyone if it is to work," and they all nod sagely. In fact, those colleagues of hers are never even named - only ever referred to as "my colleagues". Which does a grave disservice to the brave members of the NLD who supported Suu Kyi and perhaps suffered even more than she did. Who are they? What did they contribute? What trials did they face in their long struggle? We don't know, and this film isn't interested in telling us, except in extremely broad strokes (e.g. some of them were imprisoned and beaten). In its depiction of the 1990 general election, we are told the NLD won 392 Parliamentary seats. Where did it find 392 Parliamentary candidates, when it seems like the entire party consists of one person?

So instead of that, The Lady chooses instead to delve into the relationship between Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris. Now, I've said before that a film critic needs to judge a film based on what it is, and not what the critic prefers it to be. But I really think to put Aris front and center in a film about Aung San Suu Kyi is annoyingly myopic; in fact, I'm ready to accuse Besson and Frayn of being racist, because we clearly can't have a movie about brown people without a white guy as the hero. And it's not like the Aris storyline here is particularly compelling either, as indicated by how her sons Alex and Kim are as complete non-entities as Suu Kyi's unnamed NLD colleagues. Aris and Suu Kyi are shown in the most blandly glowing light - and on the flip side, General Ne Win of the military junta is so cartoonishly evil that he even, I shit you not, kills one of his own subordinates. Y'know, like brown people do.

The film does have some saving graces. It looks good, with parts of Thailand making an effective substitute for the streets of Rangoon. Michelle Yeoh gives it her all and proves without a doubt that she is capable of far more than action heroine roles; she is certainly capable of making a far better movie about Aung San Suu Kyi than this one. (On the other hand, David Thewlis seems to recognise that he's working off a lousy script and doesn't try too hard.) And some of the tearjerking melodrama can be effective, in a blatantly manipulative way. But the greatest saving grace I can think of is that Malaysians will watch this and think about its parallels to our own political situation - because the parallels are there. Peaceful demonstrations being violently suppressed, and democratic elections being subverted; oh yes, the parallels are there. Maybe there, it'll do some good after all - but certainly not by its own merits as a film.

Expectations: asalkan ia memberi keseronokan yang berkeju, cukup