Toronto 2011: Real-life drama behind Michelle Yeoh's 'The Lady'
French writer-director-producer Luc Besson has worked on many movies in his career, including “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element,” but his latest, “The Lady,” posed a fresh set of logistical and ethical questions.
First was whether to even make the film about Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who led her National League of Democracy to victory in a 1990 election but was prevented from taking office by the country’s repressive military rulers. She spent much of the next two decades under house arrest in the Southeast Asian nation; winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 did not alter her circumstances.
In part, Besson wanted to make a movie about her plight in hopes of drawing attention to her cause. Yet he knew that doing so might harden Burmese officials’ stance toward Suu Kyi, and set back her struggle.
“I wanted her to know we were doing a film. If the message came back negative, saying, ‘I don’t want you to do this,’ then I wouldn’t have done it,” Besson said in an interview this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, after premiering the movie, which stars Michelle Yeoh. “But she’s fighting for freedom, freedom of speech, and so the answer came back positively.”
Once he had her blessing, there were other hurdles. Filming a Suu Kyi biopic in Burma (also known as Myanmar) would be impossible. He set up production in neighboring Thailand, and managed to surreptitiously record 16 hours of footage in Burma, later using green-screen effects to add authentic locations into the story. He also incorporated clips filmed by Suu Kyi supporters in the country.
He enlisted Burmese people living in Thailand to act in the film, but when it came time to finish the credits, there was another issue.
“It’s the first time I’ve made a film where I’ve had an actor ask me not to be on the credits,” Besson recalled. “All these wonderful young actors who play in the film, the small parts, they’re too afraid that [the government] will do something to their families.”
Just what effect, if any, “The Lady” may have on the situation in Burma remains to be seen. Much has happened since the film was conceived:
Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, while Besson was deep into production. This March, after elections, a nominally civilian government –- with many former military officers involved -- took power. Recently, Suu Kyi has met repeatedly with state officials and even the U.N. envoy for human rights, and this summer she began making public appearances again. Yet just how far the country will go toward opening is unclear.
The film begins with a brief sequence from Suu Kyi’s childhood, when her father, U Aung San, was assassinated shortly after negotiating the country’s independence from Britain. It then jumps forward to Suu Kyi as an adult –- she’s met and married a foreigner, Michael Aris, moved to England, and had two sons.
Her life undergoes a radical shift, though, in the late 1980s when she travels back to Burma to attend to her ailing mother and gets caught up in a bloody crackdown on student demonstrations. Admirers of her father persuade her to remain in the country, and take up his mantle.
While the film chronicles her rapid transformation into a political activist and later prisoner, it focuses even more on the lesser-known domestic drama that unfolded simultaneously, and the intense personal sacrifices she endured to remain in Burma.
Under house arrest, she was separated from her husband (played in the film by David Thewlis) and children for years. (The junta offered to let her leave the country, but if she did so, return would be impossible.) When first contacted about doing the film, Thewlis said at a news conference in Toronto, “I didn’t know what role I’d be playing. I thought maybe ‘man from the embassy’ or something. ... It soon became clear that this was a love story.”
Though her family campaigned from afar to win her release –- and helped secure her Nobel in 1991 -– they were reunited only a few brief times in the following two decades, and rarely were able to communicate even via phone. Confined to her villa, Suu Kyi missed watching her children grow up, and was unable to be at her husband’s side when he died of cancer in 1999.
Yeoh –- who spent months learning Burmese for the role –- was able to travel to Rangoon and meet with Suu Kyi last year. Although they didn’t discuss the film directly –- “I think it was a conscious choice on both our parts” to protect her, Yeoh said -- the actress was able to absorb her mannerisms and demeanor. Visiting the dissident in her lake house was a bit of déjà vu for Yeoh, who had been filming for weeks in a replica of the structure in Thailand.
(After that trip was publicized, Burmese authorities turned Yeoh away this summer when she arrived in Rangoon seeking a second visit. Suu Kyi herself has not yet seen the movie, Besson said this week.)
Though the open-ended nature of Suu Kyi’s campaign for Burmese freedom might have put off some filmmakers –- since it does not make for a neat, heroic, feel-good ending -- Besson said that did not concern him.
“Thousands and thousands of people give their lives for their country, and for democracy,” Besson said. “You don’t ask yourself, ‘Is it going to work? Are we going to win?’ … You just have to do it … because you are fighting for something you think is true.”
“No matter what,” he added, “Daw Suu today, she is immortal.”
-- Julie Makinen in Toronto
Photos: Aung San Suu Kyi, top left, cheers with her supporters in Bago, 50 miles north of Rangoon, on Aug. 14, 2011. She called for unity in her country as she addressed crowds on her first political trip outside her home city since her release from house arrest. Credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images. Middle, director Luc Besson. Credit: Photo Vincent Perez © 2010 EuropaCorp - Left Bank Pictures - France 2 Cinéma. Above, David Thewlis and Michelle Yeoh in "The Lady." Photo Vincent Perez © 2010 EuropaCorp - Left Bank Pictures - France 2 Cinéma.