by Jarrah Hodge
French Director Luc Besson’s new biopic The Lady is a moving portrait of the life of Burmese activist and political leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, for a movie that clearly has a political goal (to raise awareness of the situation in Burma*), it focuses mainly on Suu Kyi’s family and personal life. As a result, while I enjoyed the movie overall it still left me feeling unsatisfied.
The movie opens in 1947 with the assassination of General Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, who had just negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain. While it’s a poignant scene and crucial historical event it’s really all we see of Suu Kyi’s early life.
From there we go forward to meet the main characters in the movie’s romance, Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh) and her professor husband Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis). They and their two sons are living in Oxford when she receives the news that her mother has had a stroke. When she returns to Burma she witnesses the military-run government massacring protesting students in the streets. When she is then approached to lead a pro-democracy movement she decides to stay.
From this point the film becomes a bit plodding, seeming a bit like a visual representation of an encyclopedia article. It moves through every interaction Syu Kii has with the military junta and their attempts to intimidate and imprison her and her followers, leading to her 15-year house arrest and years of separation from Aris and their children. While we also see Syu Kii touring the country and speaking to locals about democracy, for the most part her Burmese allies and followers in the film remain nameless and voiceless.
Ultimately while the film brings the audience to tears more than once, it’s not over the plight of Burma or ordinary Burmese citizens, but over Suu Kyi and her husband’s drawn-out separation.
That’s where I thought the focus did the subject an injustice. Interestingly, The Lady could be said to suffer from some of the same issues as The Iron Lady, which was also a movie about a woman politician that was criticized for being more concerned with sentimentality than political substance.
In some ways, though, The Lady has less excuse for this. Thatcher is elderly and ailing now but Suu Kyi is still fighting a crucial fight. It’s clear from the rallying cry at the end of the movie that one of the film’s goals is to get Westerners more involved in aiding the continuing fight for true democracy in Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi will finally take the oath of office to sit in the parliament this year, though the current structure still ensures the military maintains majority control and human rights violations continue). However, this could have been further advanced by giving voices to the Burmese non-military characters other than Suu Kyi: the students being massacred in the streets, the villagers in rural areas, and the monks who joined the protest.
As Yeoh’s Suu Kyi says in the film, she dislikes the cult of personality around her, and yet that’s what the movie reinforces by failing to broaden the depiction of the struggle. At the same time, it also in some ways diminishes her strength by tieing her identity so strongly to her family. At a couple points in the film people mention a lack of experience before coming to Burma, saying she was just an “Oxford housewife and mother of two”, not mentioning she also had a PhD, extensive academic honours, and had worked at the UN.
Would I recommend the movie for someone who had only a cursory knowledge of the situation in Burma? Yes. But Do I think it featured a strong woman role model and did justice to Aung San Suu Kyi’s cause? Not as well as it could have.
*Note: In case you’re wondering why I’m using Burma instead of Myanmar, that’s because many pro-democracy groups and activists refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the name Myanmar, which was introduced by the military government. It’s also the name they used in the film.