Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

BEYOND RANGOON (1995) **1/2 minimum.

Directed by John Boorman. Written by Alex Lasker & Bill Rubenstein, Photography, John Seale. Production design, Anthony Pratt. Editing, Ron Davis. Music, Hans Zimmer. Cast: Patricia Arquette, U Aung Ko, Frances McDormand, Spalding Gray, et al. A Castle Rock release. 100 minutes. Rated R (violence)
The roadside signs of Burma Shave were once known to most Americans,but Burma the country is unfamiliar to our masses. Veterans of the Pacific theater in World War II may remember the famous Burma Road on which the Allies carried supplies to China. Younger age groups may have seen "Objective, Burma" in which Errol Flynn and his dauntless paratroopers conquer a major Japanese base.That film upset the British whom the movie did not mention even though Burma was overwhelmingly their concern and their battlefield.

Cat-fanciers may know that the Burmese cat is a lovely animal. But overall Burma-awareness runs low and is complicated by the fact that the country is now called Myanmar,and its capital,Rangoon,is now Yangon.

Some international knowledge was added when General Ne Win staged a military takeover in 1962 and the country became a ruthless dictatorship. Also when a pro-democracy movement was brutally put down from 1988 on, and its leader, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under a house arrest that was not lifted even when she won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

By a coincidence which might somewhat benefit the film "Beyond Rangoon," Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released a few weeks ago, on July 10, 1995, after six years of house arrest.

The movie is by John Boorman whose best-known films are "Point Blank," "Deliverance," "Excalibur," and "Hope and Glory." It is set in 1988 Burma. American M.D. Laura (Patricia Arquette) had met with horrible tragedy, the wanton murders of her child and husband, in their San Francisco home. Her sister ( Frances McDormand) drags her to a trip to Burma, hoping that it might do Laura some good. It does not, initially.

In Rangoon one night, listless Laura, disregarding the curfew for foreigners, ventures out of the hotel. She stumbles on a demonstration, sees the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, witnesses the brutality of soldiers. Then she loses her passport and is temporarily stuck in Rangoon while her tour group moves on.

Laura, piling up silly imprudences --excused perhaps by the fact that she is not herself --tries to see more of the country, hires a gentle and genteel guide, an elderly professor dismissed by the regime. One thing leading to another, Laura meets the professor's friends who are all dissidents, gets involved with them -- first by chance, later by necessity, then also by conviction -- as they get hunted down and often killed by the Army whose soldiers are inebriated with power. After several breathless adventures, a long, dangerous, hinterland plus river Odyssey, and close (Burma) shaves, Laura comes out with new determination, new values and, while doubtlessly not cured of her personal tragedy, she gains a positive outlook of freedom, heroism and brotherhood.

The movie is close to the political thrillers by Costa-Gavras, like "Z", "State of Siege," "Missing" "The Confession," and others, in which the key motif is the cruel arrogance of State power.There are differences though. Among them is the basic political and factual simplicity of "Beyond Burma"'s plot (which may or may not reflect a black-or-white situation),and the fact that the Gavras pictures work from the inside, while "Beyond Rangoon" functions through the perceptions of outsider Laura,the politically innocent American abroad.

The film, no matter how you cut it,is essentially an exotic adventure fraught with dangers,a work for the general public. Some critics have found it significant,revealing and/or impressive. Others appreciate its political thrills and its value as a piece of history, somehwat a la "The Killing Fields" and "The Year of Living Dangerously," although those were much more convoluted, ambitious and complex movies. Others yet have pooh-poohed it as a camouflaged actioneer with cliche set-pieces and deja vu variations of South East Asia as wise, spiritual, yet also brutal.

Without taking sides I can safely say that the film is something of all the above praise and condemnation.It is moderately informative and none too subtle but quite exciting.Its heart is in the right place. It is also very beautifully photographed.

It was, of course, not shot in Burma, but in Malaysia. To what extent people who know what both countries look like would find the landscapes phony,convincing, or a mixture of both, I cannot tell, but the movie's 100 minutes are quite gripping and watchable.


[From page 1 of the Summer1995 issue of Amnesty Action, published by Amnesty International Usa] :

Amnesty International used the occasion of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in July to call aon Myanmar's ruling military Junta to fundamentally improve their human rights record.

The 1991 Nobvel Peace prize recipient and oposition leader was released on July 10 after six years of house arrest, one day before her detention order expired.

Amnesty International, which is currently in the midst if a world-wide campaign on behalf of women's human rights, also urged the government to release 40 other prisoners of conscience who remain imprisoned.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of Myanmar's main political opposition party, the National League for Democracy which was actually elected to power overwhelmingly in 1989.

However, the military government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, refused to recognize the results of the election, instead launching a general crackdown on civil liberties, arresting thousands, including many newly elected members of parliament. Amnesty stated its concern about the circumstances of the approximately 20 new members of parliament who, instead of taking office in 1990, were thrown n jail.

Aung San Suu Kyi founded the NLD in 1988 during earlier massive protests against six years of one-party rule. The military had ruthlessly suppressed those demonstrations, killling hundreds of protesters. The military arrested scores of pro-democracy activists again during a nationwide clampdown in 1989 in the days before the elections, although they did allow elections to take place.

Despite the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the human rights situation in Myanmar remains desperate. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in prison, most following unfair trials. Nine more young activists were recently sentenced to seven years in prison for speaking at the funeral of former Prime Minister U Nu.

Human rights violations occur throughout the country. Tens of thousands of civilians are forced to work on massive construction projects. In areas where ethnic minority armed opposition groups are active, torture and killings of villagers by the Burmese Army continue unabated, as does the impressment of civilians as military porters,

Such violations continue in the Karen, Mon and Shan ethnic districts.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel