By Alan Scherstuhl
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British director John Boorman's fondness for exotic locations and quasi-mystical quests give his best films, like the memorable Southern river trip Deliverance, an air of heightened reality, while his botched forays into Arthurian legend (Excalibur) or Amazonian splendor (The Emerald Forest) reveal the boisterous-tourist side of him, along with a penchant for cheesiness.
In Beyond Rangoon, Boorman Tours Ltd. ships us off to "captivating" Burma, where huge statues of Buddha smile mysteriously through the jungle steam and ancient pagodas inhabit almost every shot. Plunked down in the capital, we are forced to join a dreary group of Americans being herded from site to site by a motor-mouthed guide (Spalding Gray), but our attention is quickly focused on a pair of sisters. Andy Bowman (Frances McDormand), we soon learn, has dragged glum, numb (and possibly dumb) Laura (Patricia Arquette) off to Southeast Asia in a futile attempt to get her through a major trauma: Laura's husband and young son have recently been murdered by burglars. As in countless previous tales, the young widow, who is a doctor, has shut down her emotions. Unfortunately, the none-too-talented Arquette renders Laura's grief as a kind of adolescent sulkiness, so anyone over the age of fifteen may have a little trouble sympathizing. The director dotes on Arquette's face in a series of quivery closeups, but the hurt never quite transfers.
Meanwhile, you can hear the old Boorman thunder building up on the horizon. The year is 1988, and Laura Bowman is about to be swept up into revolution, war and atrocity. Boorman and his screenwriters, Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein, clearly believe that they have single-handedly discovered the repressive military regime of General Ne Win, the charismatic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the casual massacres of Burmese students and civilians. "What the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square was on international television," Laura's affectless voice-over tells us, but no one knew about the agonies of Burma, because foreign journalists were banned.
But now you know, the movie boasts.
That's fine: How admirable that these moviemakers see fit to deliver the rest of us ignoramuses from the dark. Except that Costa-Gavras-style political expose is anything but John Boorman's forte. In fact, he quickly subor-dinates Burma's bloody and appalling civil woes to the redemption of a not-very-interesting American woman trying to "find herself" and to "regain meaning." Thus does mass genocide serve as a scenic backdrop to melodrama. This is sheer Hollywood, of course--the same box-office instinct that reduced the civil-rights movement to the trumped-up moral quandaries of a couple of white FBI agents in Mississippi Burning.
In Beyond Rangoon, one supposed messenger of Burma's truth is the beleaguered, real-life leader Aung San Suu Kyi herself (here played by Adelle Lutz). But she appears in just one early, political-demonstration scene, and that's for the express purpose of inspiring awe in Laura Bowman. The other messenger is a fictional former university professor named U Aung Ko (played by an actor of the same name), who's now scraping by as a Rangoon tour guide. When the naive and ditsy Laura loses her passport, she must remain behind for a few days while Sis and her group move on to Bangkok. Luckily, we never see them again, but we get a mighty dose of the virtuous U Aung Ko. He's the sort of snowy-haired guru who speaks in pithy aphorisms and stirs kids one-fourth his age to fawning adoration, even as soldiers are shooting them dead. Naturally, once he unwisely lures Laura into his beat-up Chevy for a forbidden trip into the countryside, he melts her frozen heart, too, with a heady brew of Buddhism and democratic rhetoric.
Talk about adventure. The old man and the traumatized Laura escape certain death at a train-station checkpoint, then are chased into a river by army thugs firing machine guns. They hole up in a beatific monastery. They break bread with exotic young locals and go downriver on a raft with bamboo farmers. When Aung is wounded, Laura finally sets her own troubles aside, faces down a glowering army officer and tends to her new friend with stolen penicillin. Along with dozens of other fugitives (Laura is now our designated witness to the truth--or something like that), the pair tries to cross a rickety bridge to freedom in Thailand. Somewhere in there, the ghost of Laura's little boy appears to her in a dream (yes, that old ploy), telling her to let go.
In other words, there's nothing like a touch of Asian civil war to cure an American tourist's blues and get her on down the road to self-healing.
And that is the real essence of Beyond Rangoon. Not the unheralded Burmese democracy movement--despite the printed legends that pop up on the screen afterward to report on the movement's progress. Not the glowing tenets of Buddhism. Or even the National Geographic splendors of the Far East. No. What John Boorman and the writers are really after here is that old personal-redemption trip--a little amateur psychoanalysis in the war-torn jungle, the reflowering of a Yankee spirit through the sight of troubles greater than her own. In the end, we behold now-heroic Laura Bowman in one last closeup, pulling on a pair of surgical gloves at an overcrowded riverside clinic, strength restored, ready to pitch in and do her part for the good of the world.
That Burma's (now Myanmar's) anguish has played inaudible second fiddle for 99 minutes seems to have occurred to no one.
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