IF you can think of a more problematic yet enticing Southeast Asian nation than Burma — and convince me you’re right — then I’ll buy you a beer. Sure, democracy in Thailand is wanting and its south is in turmoil; sure, Indonesia pays lip service to reform while the elites who fattened themselves under Suharto largely continue to run the show, economically at least (and therefore, by proxy, politically). For that matter, there are things wrong in pretty much any other country in the region you care to think of.
But Burma, historically one of the jewels in the crown of the British raj and in more recent decades the epitome of unenlightened despotism, has long held a particular place in the imagination of the West — both for all the wrong and all the right reasons.
The presence of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi as a figurehead for the struggle against a brutal and corrupt regime always helped. Educated, articulate, beautiful and up for two decades of house arrest in the name of freedom for her people, away from her English academic husband and their two sons — you could hardly write this stuff.
Except that, of course, veteran French director and writer Luc Besson did, and the result is the splendidly beautiful The Lady (MA15+, Roadshow, 127min, $39.95, DVD/ 159min, $49.95, Blu-ray). With the great Chinese-Malaysian action star Michelle Yeoh playing the lead and David Thewlis as her husband, David Aris, the production depicts the struggles of the Burmese people and of Suu Kyi — the daughter of modern Burma’s founding father, Aung San — and her family.
The great tragedy, of course, was Aris’s death in 1999 before the couple had a chance to reunite. Even so, Suu Kyi’s overwhelming equanimity in the face of adversity was an inspiration during those two decades of house arrest and on her eventual permanent release at the end of 2010.
Events as recent as the past year have seen a huge shift in how Burma operates, with almost daily evidence of the country’s slow re-entry into a world system. Only last month came the announcement that the government would no longer pursue routine censorship of the news media, following elections in April in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won — and, unlike in its previous attempts, was granted — a majority of seats in Burma’s parliament.
The Lady is an evocative exploration of how it came to this, although I recommend you also watch the address Suu Kyi gave in Norway this year when she finally was able to accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. (There had been an empty chair at each year’s awards ceremony that she was not permitted to attend.) In that remarkably humble speech, Suu Kyi said she had tried, in the years since she was awarded it, to remember what her immediate reaction was to receiving the Nobel honour. Her answer? ‘‘What the Nobel Peace Prize did was draw me once again into the world of other human beings,’’ she said. A singular woman.
(M) Roadshow (113min, $39.95)
(G) Madman (45min, $24.95)
(M) Transmission (108min, $34.95)