BURMA IS, IN ITS WAY, a kind of shadow Tibet, Tibet without the glamour or mystique, a “Land of Buddhas” as devoutly constant as the land of six thousand monasteries to the north. The charms of its premodern culture have been preserved from the modern world by a policy of inwardness. Its people have a good nature and gentle strength that instantly convert every visitor to their cause. And for thirty years now, it has been suffering a demeaning and remorseless repression that the rest of the world is either unable or unwilling to combat. A nation is dying in silence there (in some ways, it is dead already, Burma having been renamed “Myanmar” by its oppressors). And now, as the military government tries to make the rest of the world complicit in its tyranny by opening up the country to tourism, Burma presents, like Tibet, the most vexing of riddles to the well-meaning foreigner: to what extent can one begin to help such a country (without condemning its regime) by visiting?
None of this was much in my mind, I confess, when, wandering through Paris one sweltering day in August, I saw a sign for John Boorman’s new film Beyond Rangoon. And at first the movie seemed to be a predictable one, tracing the life of a bereaved young woman from New York (Patricia Arquette), who goes on a tour of Buddhist Asia (led by Spalding Gray) to try to take her mind off a recent tragedy. The Buddhist images and statues in themselves have no affect on her, but while in Rangoon she catches a glimpse of the Burmese people’s struggle for freedom, and through circumstances and the intercession of a typically gracious, scholarly Burmese man she meets on the street (U Aung Ko, playing himself), she gets caught up in that struggle and begins to heal her own wounds by tending to those of others. Beyond Rangoon feels, in fact, a little like a fledgling Killing Fields (though less rich and less electric, and with a much lower budget): here are the Red Cross camps in the distance, the terrifying checkpoints, the long-suffering local man playing a part on screen he has already known in life. And, yet again, wise Easterners speaking in aphorisms, innocents getting shot in the back of the head, and Third World people saying, “We don’t need to be saved by Americans”, only to be saved by heroic Americans. Yet for all its occasional clunkiness and lack of intensity, the film had something stirring and noble and galvanizing in it that made it much more precious to me than many a better film might be.
For one thing, it dramatizes—though it does not explain—one of the central conundrums of many Buddhist nations in Asia, which is how such transparently sweet and generous souls can produce armies and governments of such ferocity (in Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, and even Tibet). For another, though the violent sequences in the film are a familiar barrage of snarling soldiers, stalling cars and villages laid waste, its quiet moments—boats in the moonlight, a household Buddha in the trees, the glances of the Burmese along the riverbank—do evoke a sense of how the calm of those countries can transform you, not with giant Buddhas, but with small ones. And best of all, Beyond Rangoon is designed to be a kind of witness and a wake-up call in the service of precisely those lessons we most need to hear: that suffering is not an exception but a rule; that our small worries can be dissolved in the larger issues of the day; and that engagement is the only solution to the Hamlet-like riddlings of the mind.
John Boorman has, in fact, made a film based not on the box-office but on principle, and its greatest gift is to show us that the only way to deal with horror is to look at it. In its final, triumphant image of a defrocked professor hugging a scared soldier and disarming him with his trust, the film suggests how non-violence can work miracles in a very human context. The difficulty in any such project, after all, is not in showing how goodness works in the afflicted, but rather in seeing how it hides out in the afflictors; anyone who has seen the terrified and harassed teenagers protecting Chinese interests in Lhasa knows that those soldiers are victims too, as exploited and confused as the Tibetans they are sent to put down.
Beyond Rangoon is graced with incidental pleasures: Adelle Lutz’s swan-necked grace in playing Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Prize-winning figurehead of democracy; Hans Zimmer’s tinkly, wind-chiming music; and the affectionate respect with which it treats Burma’s dilapidated courtesies. It presents action as a form of therapy, and smiles as a form of strength. And although Patricia Arquette’s performance is not always very compelling, the film comes to life when the Burmese are at its center, and their hopeful earnestness and bravery pull it through on screen as one hopes they may do in life. But its greatest achievement is in awakening its audience to a forgotten tragedy that a government is quietly conducting behind closed doors. When Chinese soldiers fired on their own countrymen in Tiananmen Square, the world was outraged; but the same thing has happened for years in Burma, and no one appears to notice.
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