Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Lady (film review)

Michelle Yeoh as The Lady -- Aung San Suu Kyi*

The Lady (France-United Kingdom, 2011)
- Luc Besson, director
- Starring Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Htun Lin, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Benedict Wong, Teerawat Mulvilai, etc.

More than one and half decades ago now, I rented a VHS tape of a Hong Kong movie dubbed into English and known as Supercop in the USA (but known as Police Story III: Supercop in Hong Kong and many other territories and filmed in synch sound largely in Cantonese) -- and, without much exaggeration, can say that I had my life changed as a result. For that film starring Jackie Chan also starred Michelle Yeoh -- and seeing her in action seriously blew my mind and sent me on a trajectory that led me via Philadelphia's Chinatown (as a result of a search of other movies in which the Ipoh-born actress featured) and our native Malaysia to Hong Kong where I now work and reside.

Long before I first came to know of the existence of Michelle Yeoh, I already was familiar with the story of Aung San Suu Kyi -- the daughter of assassinated Burmese nationalist leader Aung San who had herself become a major political force in the military-ruled Southeast Asian country and had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under extended house arrest. A dignified beacon of non-violence, the woman known as The Lady to her people is one of those rare contemporary political leaders who seems to appear to be larger than life, almost mythical -- not least in that she has been credited with the kind of nobility and high-mindedness that borders on the saintly in any age, never mind our often super-cynical contemporary era.

Until I heard about Luc Besson's The Lady, I never ever would have put Michelle Yeoh and Aung San Suu Kyi together in a single thought or sentence. For although they both occupy prominent places in their respective worlds, those worlds do seem so very different -- and so too do their public personae: with, among other things, the Malaysian actress often coming across as someone who just cannot physically sit still and is inclined to leap before she thinks as much as the Burmese leader is quietly graceful and contemplative.

So imagine my surprise when Michelle Yeoh turned out to be quite the inspired choice to portray Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady -- so much so that even while I initially could not help but be cognizant of my watching Michelle Yeoh acting in the Luc Besson-helmed drama, somewhere along the way, I actually stopped feeling that she was having to do such as consciously curb her natural bouncy way of walking in order to assume Aung San Suu Kyi's more elegant gait and, instead, focused on how a humanizing portrait of the iconic Burmese woman was being formed and given layer upon layer of emotion and overall depth.

Alternatively put: Over the course of viewing The Lady, I grew to feel like I had gotten to know more about Aung San Suu Kyi as a human individual and loving mother and wife to add to my previous knowledge of her as an inspiring and inspirational political figure. And I really do think that a significant amount of credit for this undoubtedly goes to the actress who so ably portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi in this film -- the same thespian who has demonstrated her dramatic abilities before in other movies yet still remains mainly assumed to be "just" an action actress by most movie-goers.

Perhaps it's an ingrained bias on my part but I really do wish that The Lady had given far more screen time to Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi. For although the film's title makes it seem like that would be the case, she/they really are not in a lot of the sections of this drama that turns out to also have many scenes in which Aung San Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis), is the primary, if not sole, focus.

On a related note, I have no doubt that many of this film's viewers cannot help but be disappointed that The Lady actually is as much a story of Aung San Suu Kyi's love of her husband and her children as it is of her country -- and, even more, that it also is the story of Michael Aris' love of his wife. For my part, I am sympathetic to some extent to this choice of focus -- and do think that this emphasis does hammer home how much she (has) had to sacrifice as far as her family was concerned in order to stay in and true to her country.

At the same time though, I also can't help but feel that it truly would have made for a more interesting and dramatic -- and actually great(er) -- film if the focus had stayed more on Aung San Suu Kyi and her cause in Burma rather than be rather distractingly extended also to her husband and sons, however loved by her they were/are, over in England. At the very least, be it for technical or other reasons, it often seemed like the momentum often was disturbed, and the pace would noticeably lag, whenever the scenes shifted from Burma to England, with Michael Aris -- who actually had led quite the interesting life himself, including a stint as private tutor to children of Bhutan's royal family -- and David Thewlis sadly never ever seeming to come across as possessing the charisma that Aung San Suu Kyi and Michelle Yeoh so very clearly have in spades.

My rating for this film: 7

*photo credit: Vincent Perez/2010 EuropaCorp/Left Bank Pictures/France 2 Cinema


Diana said...

It sounds like the filmmakers tried to take the safe route to covering Aung San Suu Kyi by focusing on the husband. It doesn't seem to have worked, it is banned in some places.

Funny I thought that Michelle Yeoh was great casting from the start but I was looking at her graceful air more than her energy level.

Horsoon said...

I'm very inspired to see Michelle protraying Suu Kyi too and so looking forward to watch this film.

Happy Chap Goh Mei!

YTSL said...

Hi Diana --

I hadn't thought about the possibility that the route taken was the safe one -- but ya, it makes sense. Still, as you say, it hasn't worked -- and BTW, there's still no release date for "The Lady" in Michelle Yeoh's (and my) homeland... sad.

Also food for thought re what you said about Michelle Yeoh having a graceful air. I.e., I'll have to think about that. :D

Hi Horsoon --

Do you know if there's a specific release date in Malaysia for the film? I checked for a friend -- and nada... :S

Re Chap Goh Mei: sorry, didn't keep track! :D

Brian said...

Good to see Michelle's career is still moving even if her action days are pretty much behind her. Still it would have been nice I would guess to see Aung San Suu Kyi knock a few generals with flying kicks! Where has this been banned other than I assume Burma?

baroness radon said...

Look forward to seeing this.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Yup re Michelle's career -- and I have to say that I think she looks better these days than back in the 1980s (with those awful hairstyles and baby fat!)! Who says a woman can't look better in her late 40s (she'll be 50 this year!) than in her 20s? ;b

But no to seeing Aung San Suu Kyi flying kicking the generals. "The Lady" is not that kind of movie -- and all the better for being so.

Re banning: alas, it looks like among the countries where it is not being screened are China (the mainland part but not Hong Kong. Also note that "The Lady" also will be shown in Taiwan) and Malaysia (where there's no(t yet) a firm release date). :S

Hi baroness radon --

Do try to keep your expectations low when going into the film. I think it helped me that I did this!

sbk said...

Thank you for your review. Like your other readers who've commented I too am interested in seeing the film. Also thanks to your review my expectations aren't as high as they were so I won't feel as let down.

YTSL said...

Hi sbk --

Thanks for reading my review -- especially since I know your normal preference is to read reviews after you've viewed a film rather than before. Re expectations re "The Lady": let me emphasize once again that it's not primarily a political biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. I think going into a viewing of the film with that thought in mind will help a lot.