BFI John Boorman Season – Beyond Rangoon (1995)
Can a movie change the world? Over their long and illustrious history they have certainly provoked non-fictional responses, shamefully screenings of DW Griffiths still controversial The Birth Of A Nation aligned with an upsurge in lynchings in the deep South, and Spike Lee’s incendary Do The Right Thing is claimed to have sparked a plague of public clashes in New York. Ronald Regan reputedly begin to chill to the prospects of discussions with the Soviets after being moved and stunned by seeing the TV movie The Day After*, but then again he also asked to see the War Room that was depicted in Dr. Strangelove, once he was inaugurated, a tale that one assumes was apocryphal as the alternative is too terrifying to entertain. Closer to home and sticking with TV movies Ken Loach’s brutal Cathy Come Home led to questions in the House Of Commons and new legislation to modernise social service provision, I’m sure there are many other examples where the fictional has influenced the real, where an issue or subject, an event or is brought to the radiating and excoriating sunlight. This brings us to Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman’s scathing portrayal of the military junta in Burma, as seen through the eyes of a naive American traveller played with a sweltering charm of Patricia Arquette. Released in 1995 this was one of the first films to spotlight the regime’s appaling behaviour – atrocities which still occurs daily by the way – and is partially credited with accelerating the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, an event which raised the previous invisible issue to the world media and all the attention that has subsequently been directed to that beautiful corner of the planet.
I wanted to revisit this film for a couple of reasons, first of all I remember seeing this on VHS back in the late nineties and being floored by an unexpected slap of a film, a powerful yell for justice and hu, excoriating a litany of violations and suppression which had previously been unknown to me. Secondly I wanted to select something a little of the beaten track for my Boorman season, it would have been too easy to cover the usual suspects of his career – Deliverance, Point Blank, Excalibur – plus if the film was as good as I remembered then maybe a humble review might just prompt some readers to hunt it down and widen its exposure, however infinitesimal. Set in 1988 the film charts the brutal suppression of that years pro-democracy uprising, transmitted through the eyes of audience surrogate Laura Bowman (Arquette) who travels to Burma with her sister Andy (Frances McDormand who is always great) to repair her soul after the murder of her husband and son by burglars. After losing her passport she stumbles into one of the 8888 protests and is tarred with guilt by association, the junta accusing of her of aiding and abetting the insurgents for foreign exploitation, and she is soon on a desperate mission to flee to the safety of Thailand with her new friend U Aung Ko, a persecuted professor whom was one of the central revolutionaries protesting the scripture of Democracy .
Any film that achieves an ‘awestruck’ achievement from the notoriously grumpy Andrew Sarris has to be doing something right (it even got into his top dozen for 1995) but memory is a funny old thing, and I found this film to be a rather turgid affair, with only a few scattered high points of sweltering interest. Maybe it’s the cynic that has festered in me in the past twenty years since the film was released, the idealistic scales falling from ones eyes after two decades of real world events and political experience, or that this movie’s style of storytelling seems clumsy in comparison to today’s hyperkinetic norms, but Beyond Rangoon suffers from a rather patronising tone which takes the time to show just how IMPORTANT it is as if speaking to an impatient child, rather than letting the story unfold organically through Laura’s eyes as witness to the horrific events and struggle for liberty. I’ve always liked Patricia Arquette although she seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years, for some reason the screenwriter has encumbered her with a redundant voiceover which tells us exactly what she is thinking, when this should really be expressed through her performance as she comes to terms with her bereavement through supporting and assisting others. Similarly the Burmese protesters and activists are little more than ideological ciphers, spouting their concerns through political speeches rather than human beings covertly discussing their experiences with a sympathetic alien , overall it’s all quite forced even as you admire the ambition to weld together an important ‘issue’ film with a convincing character study, to make the tonic more palatable for an unsuspecting audience.
As I mentioned before Boorman likes to use a journey as a narrative structure, with his protagonists subtly changing and morphing as their sojourn unfurls, the experiences of life and the people they meet altering their world view and ideology over the course of their odyssey. This is the trajectory of Beyond Rangoon and the film gains a new momentum as it hurtles into its second hour, when John Seale’s expressive photography expands the vista of the film and it actually starts to arrest the attention with drama and peril, the expedition generating some missed heat and drive as Laura frantically navigates the wilderness with her wounded compatriot in tow. Unfortunately an early Hans Zimmer score hobbles some of this liberty with the obvious employment of Far Eastern chimes and wistful panpipe warbling, as one of my favourite contemporary composers (alongside Howard Shore and Clint Mansell since you ask) he falls seriously into cliché mode here, as it is the most obvious choice to employ the native instruments of the culture you are unearthing, especially in such a doe-eyed, sentimental fashion. To be fair though the film’s heart is in the right place and its position as possibly the first serious work to shine a light on the horrendous abuses in Burma shouldn’t be faulted, even if the delivery method of the movie doesn’t match the historical bravery that the movement should be assigned. It seems as if Boorman was the go to guy in filming movies with a mixture of action and issues, usually in difficult foreign climates (see also The Emerald Forest as well as Deliverance), smuggling a little political persuasion amongst the characterisation, which charitably speaking yield mixed results. Whilst we’re on the subject can I also recommend the surprisingly moving Luc Besson biopic The Lady which centres on Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinarily brave fight for justice, it’s a much more nuanced presentation of the political intertwining with the personal with a terrific central performance from Michelle Yeoh an achievement which really deserved some award kudos but was sadly overlooked. So that’s my knuckles rapped for being a bit creative isn’t it? Next time I’ll stick to the formula and focus on the agreed ‘classics’ I guess, thinking logically there is a reason why the likes of Hope & Glory and Point Blank are remembered and Beyond Rangoon is relegated to the back benches of cinephile scrutiny….
*One speculates what he would have made of Threads, the UK equivalent which remains one of the most harrowing and terrifying pieces ever submitted to film in my opinion. My entire school generation still shudder at the mention of it…..