BEYOND RANGOON—-director John Boorman’s heartfelt 1995 attempt to bring attention to the ongoing repression in Burma, did some decent business in France, but it sadly crashed and burned in the perennially less-informed U.S., only grossing $5,750,110, the paltry return on a $23,000,000 investment another reminder that too many ignore too much for too long. Like Boorman’s earlier rallying cry over the destruction of Amazonia and indigenous people in Brazil, The Emerald Forest, decades after it was made, it still carries a regrettable and contemporary cachet of outrage and pain. *
“We are taught that suffering is one promise that life always keeps. So that when happiness comes we know it is a gift, and it is ours only for a brief time.”
Burma, 1988. American doctor ‘Laura Bowman’ (Patricia Arquette), seeking escape from personal trauma—the murder of her husband and son—visits the exotic SE Asian country with her sister (Frances McDormand). Witnessing a street demonstration featuring activist leader Aung San Suu Kyi results in Laura losing her passport, just as the country declares martial law. Left behind to arrange documents with the U.S. embassy so she can flee to Thailand, she encounters a kindly guide, ‘U Aung Ko’ (the actor has the same name as his character), a former professor. Their tourist-guide relationship turns into a flight for survival as the Burmese military goes on a rampage against its unarmed, peacefully protesting populace. Laura’s personal misery is transcended by that of an entire people.
Regional atmosphere was accomplished by difficult—quite obviously arduous—location filming in Malaysia, beautifully lensed by cinematographer John Seale, accented by a moving soundtrack from Hans Zimmer. In the first part of the story, Arquette, 26 and fresh off funky business in True Romance and Ed Wood, is somewhat hampered by her character’s emotional dead-zone, her flat-toned voice just countered by a haunted look in her eyes. When the plot galvanizes into momentum mode, she delivers a first-class physical performance, revealing a fearless 5′ 2″ ball of fire the equal of any male action star: she and the other actors are tasked with some truly wild immersions into rivers, muddy jungle and unsafe-looking sets—usually full-tilt and barefoot—that must’ve given insurers headaches.
A blessing—-for her character, and for the film’s success—is the choice of her compatriot. 56-year-old U Aung Ko had no acting experience; he was a political science professor and had defected from Burma for France in 1975. He delivers with quiet grace. In a powerful scene (based off an actual act of amazing resolve), Aung San Suu Kyi is played by artist & designer Adelle Lutz, a dead-ringer for the politician; it’s an ethereal moment.
Screenplay by Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein. With Johnny Cheah, Spalding Gray (not too good), Victor Slezak, Ye Myint, Kuswadinata. Arquette’s own young son plays her character’s little boy. I remember first seeing this in a theater when it came out and being moved by it. I also recall there were about ten people in the audience. 99 minutes.
* The beat-down goes on—whereas Boorman’s 1985 classic The Emerald Forest holds its hurt from the insane acceleration of habitat & cultural ruin in the face of climate catastrophe, Beyond Rangoon‘s stake-thru-the-heart is partially undercut by how, when the venerated Aung San Suu Kyi eventually came to power two decades later, she dealt (or didn’t deal) with the atrocity campaign the Burmese military unleashed on the country’s minority Rohinga people. As of May 2020, that terror continues, and the hard-won laurels she collected from around the world have in many instances been revoked.
In 2011, she was played by the gifted Michelle Yeoh in director Luc Besson’s The Lady.
U Aung Ko, interviewed at the time: “I had no dreams of acting, but we Burmese have a very profound feeling to help our people. So I am very glad to do a service for Mr John Boorman, and hope I can do credit to him. He is on the right path, I think, for democratization and human rights. I am already a wanted man in Burma, so why should I not do this film?”
Cameraman John Seale had jungle experience going for him, having shot The Mosquito Coast and Gorillas In The Mist. His other credits include The English Patient, The Perfect Storm and Mad Max: Fury Road.