A young San Francisco widow is swept into a political uprising in Burma after her sister reluctantly drags her on a Southeast Asia tour.
Working at the top of his form, John Boorman is a director who can pursue the poetry of his personal obsessions within the framework of a dynamic thriller and not shortchange the film. Beyond Rangoon
involves a journey into unfamiliar territory: the rivers, jungles, and war-torn backcountry of Burma in 1988; But it also ventures into the mythic Arthurian terrain of such seemingly disparate films as Excalibur
, Point Blank
, and Deliverance
. This time, uniquely in this director's work, the quester is a woman. American doctor Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette) regards her life as having ended after the brutal murder of her husband and their little boy by home invaders. Her sister (Frances McDormand) has persuaded her to come along on a sightseeing tour of Burma. The trip leaves Laura numb until, impulsively venturing into the night alone, she becomes witness to a crisis moment in history: the beginning of the military dictatorship's violent crackdown on the rising democracy movement. The sight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the dissidents' inspirational leader, facing down a wall of armed soldiers with only the power of serene self-possession inspires Laura (an amazing scene--and it really did happen).
But that's only the beginning of Laura’s movement toward enlightenment, and back to life. Beyond Rangoon abounds in memorable encounters--with individuals variously supportive and terrifying, and with locations and situations where hope and catastrophe trade off like valences of the same energy. As critic Kathleen Murphy has noted, "It's as though the fabric of reality shivers like water, racking focus into a new, altered pattern of experience." (Case in point: the startling image of a car's rear window star-shattered by a pursuer's bullet as Laura drives down an almost nonexistent jungle road--the pursuit car sharply irised in the bullet hole.) Boorman makes us feel the total chaos of a spectacularly beautiful land that is not only at the mercy of a brutal regime but utterly cut off from an outside world that doesn't, can't, know what's happening there. In this, Boorman's movie immeasurably increased awareness of Burma's tragedy, but it hasn't prevented the government of what's now called Myanmar from keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest more than 20 years later. --Richard T. Jameson