By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The recent news from Burma, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, about Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party claiming victory for 40 of 45 contested seats in parliament seems to seal Suu Kyi’s incredible transformation from a longtime housebound prisoner of a military regime to a national hero, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and international spokesperson for democracy.
Luc Besson’s film “The Lady,” completed before this latest development but after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010, traces Suu Kyi’s saga with remarkable authenticity and a spellbinding performance by Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi.
Michelle Yeoh first came to prominence shooting Hong Kong action films, starting with Sammo Hung’s “The Owl vs. Bombo” in 1984. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” from 2000, showed her balancing action sequences with nuanced character shading, but “The Lady” confirms her credentials as a real dramatic actress.
Yeoh looks quite a bit like the actual Aung San Suu Kyi. But she went deep into character, studying Suu Kyi’s speeches and undertaking an exhaustive study of the Burmese language. Some of the Burmese extras in the speech sequences, who had heard the original speeches delivered by Suu Kyi decades before, were moved to tears by the reenactment. Yeoh makes the most out of her close-ups, manifesting the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions of Suu Kyi with seeming effortlessness.
But “The Lady” is, among other things, a love story, and David Thewlis, as Michael Aris, holds up his end of the relationship commendably. In earlier roles, Thewlis appeared menacing and wide-eyed, as with his award-winning performance in Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” but here, he seems gentler. Thewlis conjures Dr. Aris using nuance and restraint. He makes his feelings known through small and subtle gestures, down to the way he smokes his many cigarettes.
French-born director Luc Besson has an impressive track record of hit films, ranging from “The Fifth Element” to “The Transporter.” The techniques he uses in “The Lady,” like the performances, are not flashy, but they serve to tell a remarkable story. He addresses Suu Kyi’s improbable rise in politics, but he does not neglect Aris and the couple’s two sons waiting patiently in England. He constructs solid parallel story lines, the separate lives of Suu Kyi and her family.
“The Lady” can’t be seen officially in Burma itself, but bootleg editions circulate privately. Perhaps that will change in the aftermath of the new elections, with Suu Kyi providing a hopeful outlook for her country. “The Lady” proves to be a masterful, beautiful evocation of her spirit. (end)
“The Lady” opens on Friday, April 13 in Seattle. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.