Saturday, November 20, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Beyond Rangoon

It’s taken almost 15 years but John Boorman’s sadly underrated and neglected drama Beyond Rangoon (1995) has finally been released on DVD. One of the riskiest pictures Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) has ever made, Beyond Rangoon is a potently absorbing piece of work. The story focuses on Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), an American nurse whose husband and son are murdered during a home invasion. In order to give herself time to heal, she agrees to accompany her sister (Frances McDormand) on a trip to Burma. Since they are making the trip in 1988, they encounter the rise of the democracy movement led by pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi against the brutality of the military dictatorship under General Ne Win.(Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last week, after spending 15 of the last 21 years imprisoned, adds another layer of poignancy for the contemporary viewer.)

The daring in Boorman’s work here is the way he subtly illuminates how the Burmese uprising stirs Bowman out of the catatonic shock over her family’s murder. She not only rediscovers her calling as a nurse, but becomes politically motivated as well. When she makes herself a target for killing by the government, she simultaneously comes to terms with the intimate details of the deaths she's experienced closer to home. Bowman immediately wakes up to a fragile world where life and death have become delicately intertwined.

John Boorman has always been a humanist director, but sometimes he got caught up in the kind of New Age mysticism (The Emerald Forest) that inadvertently rendered his films as exercises in camp. In Beyond Rangoon, Boorman envisions the Burmese torpor as a fever dream where Bowman (along with the country) awakens into a spiritual affirmation that comes with a heavy price. Although many critics at the time complained that Boorman cast the Burmese revolution through the eyes of a Westerner, Beyond Rangoon does not cheapen their struggle by doing so. If anything, Boorman vividly shows us the full cost of the burgeoning idealism of the Burmese democracy movement. In light of recent events, the picture couldn’t be timelier.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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