By Joe Bendel. Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent parliamentary election sounds like a breakthrough for a free and democratic Burma. However, it is important to remember past promises of liberalization have evaporated into fresh repression time and time again. Suu Kyi has witnessed those periodic crackdowns from a distinctly personal vantage point, becoming the international face of the Burmese opposition, at tremendous personal cost. Her courageous activism and sacrifices are stirringly dramatized in Luc Besson’s The Lady, which opens tomorrow in New York.
Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was the hero of Burma’s drive for independence. A committed nationalist, he was assassinated by allies-turned-rivals when Suu Kyi was just a child. As the daughter of the revered General, Suu Kyi would be seen as a natural leader for the developing Burmese democracy movement.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Suu Kyi lived a quiet but pleasant life as an Oxford academic with her husband, Dr. Michael Aris, a specialist in Himalayan culture. Returning to comfort her ailing mother, Suu Kyi agreed to lend her prestige to the opposition on the eve of the 8.8.88 uprising. It began a period of activism defined by her fifteen non-consecutive years spent under solitary house arrest.
The Lady directly conveys the lonely reality of her imprisonment, as well as the heartbreaking tragedy. Denying her husband and sons entry visas, the military government forced Suu Kyi to choose between her family and her country. As a result, she would never have the chance to tend to Dr. Aris during his fatal bout with cancer.
Though obviously partly intended as an advocacy film on behalf of Suu Kyi’s democratic coalition, The Lady is most effective as a thinking person’s romance. It is clear Aris and Suu Kyi’s relationship was one of the world’s great love stories. Indeed, it was a perceived weakness the military regime unsuccessfully sought to exploit.
Former Miss Malaysia and legendary HK action star Michelle Yeoh delivers a career performance as Suu Kyi. Still one of the greatest movie-star beauties of all time, she radiates warmth and dignity throughout the film. Yet she is not engaging in an overrated, Meryl Streep-like screen caricature (that Streep took home the Oscar while Yeoh was not even nominated was an injustice of cosmic proportions). This is a passionate, flesh-and-blood woman, who suffers acutely in the absence of her beloved husband and sons.
Likewise, David Thewliss transforms himself into the earnest Tibetologist, developing some achingly touching chemistry with Yeoh. Despite her vastly more elegant appearance, viewers really will believe they are a devoted couple. He is also devastatingly convincing when portraying Aris’s declining health. Benedict Wong (recognizable from the original State of Play) also provides a nice assist as Karma Phuntsho, Aris’s former student and close spiritual advisor.
Granted, The Lady is not exactly perfect. Rebecca Frayn’s screenplay only does a so-so job of establishing the political and historical context of Suu Kyi’s struggle, and Besson’s depiction of the ruling military elite occasional veers towards the cartoony. However, anyone can understand Yeoh and Thewliss’s performances and even the most jaded will find themselves getting choked-up (in spite of themselves) during the third act.
According to reports, the film has been banned by the Chinese Communist authorities, so what more fitting endorsement could one ask for? An unequivocally pro-democracy film and a truly heartfelt love story, The Lady is sincerely recommended for the on-screen work of Yeoh and for the real life work of Suu Kyi when it opens tomorrow (4/11) in New York at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square and the Regal Union Square.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on April 10th, 2012 at 11:00am.
By Joe Bendel. Nursing homes are a booming business in Hong Kong, yet you still hear seniors referred to as “uncles” and “aunties.” The terms “sir” and “ma’am” just are not the same—and those are heard less and less often even here. Social and generational change might be sweeping Hong Kong (and the Mainland), but one dutiful film producer still tends to his family’s ailing servant in Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, which opens this Friday in New York and San Francisco.
Chung Chun To, preferably known as Ah To, has worked for the Leung family since the Japanese Occupation. She is content to serve Roger, her favorite of the Leung children and the only one remaining in Hong Kong. It is a quiet, uneventful life for them both, when he is not traveling to the Mainland to negotiate deals. Returning late one night he finds Ah To collapsed after a stroke. Suddenly, it will be Leung taking care of Ah To.
There are no melodramatics in Hui’s refreshingly down-to-earth and true-to-life film. Leung is a cold fish, but he requires no clichéd awakening of his conscience, immediately understanding he will have to step up to the plate for Ah To. Yet there are plenty of awkward moments and difficult choices in store for him, such as the nursing home he places her in. Again, it is not great, but it is not a standard movie horror show. Rather, it is much like the average facility one might reluctantly accept anywhere in Hong Kong or America (and at least it is overseen by the attractive Nurse Choi, played by the up-and-coming Qin Hailu, scratching something out of the seemingly thankless role).
Instead, A Simple Life works quietly, depicting the role reversal with patience and honesty. Superstar Andy Lau’s work as Leung is remarkably assured and restrained. In a way, Deanie Ip has it easier, because she has room to “act” when portraying Ah To’s slow physical decline, but again she scrupulously maintains her dignified reserve.
Despite the serious subject matter, A Simple Life will also interest fans of Asian genre cinema, featuring many big name stars in cameo roles. In an extended sequence, Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark play themselves, hashing out a production budget with Leung. Anthony Wong also appears in a small supporting role, getting perhaps five minutes of screen time, but it is a cool five minutes.
Reportedly based co-producer-co-writer Roger Lee’s real life family retainer, A Simple Life is like a tear-jerker with too much self-respect to jerk tears. That is exactly why the payoff hits home so hard. Officially submitted by Hong Kong as its recent best foreign language Oscar contender, it might well have caught on with the Academy in a less competitive year. (Unfortunately, those are the breaks.) Happily, audiences can catch up with it now. Highly accessible, it is definitely recommended for mainstream audiences when it opens this Friday (4/13) in New York at the AMC Empire and in San Francisco at the AMC Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on April 10th, 2012 at 10:59am.
LFM Co-Editor Govindini Murty was on Lars Larson’s national radio show Friday talking about Titanic in 3D, The Hunger Games and Jason Apuzzo’s recent Huffington Post-AOL Moviefone article on the resurgence of Sword & Sandal films. Special thanks, as always, to Lars and his staff for inviting Govindini on. She always has fun appearing on his show.
Lars’ show is broadcast on over 200 stations nationwide, and runs at different times across the country, so to find his show be sure to check out his website here.
Posted on April 10nd, 2012 at 10:58am.