There’s something off about this film. It’s like there are puzzle pieces that don’t fit and aren’t even from the same puzzle being shoved together without any effort to actually find some semblance of cohesion. It makes me wonder about the writing process of the film. The credited writers are Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein, but considering the behind the scenes stories where Boorman heavily rewrote scripts on set, like on Deliverance, it would surprise me not at all to learn that Boorman heavily rewrote the script to Beyond Rangoon while shooting and in pre-production. I don’t know where the original intent would be and what Boorman changed, though, so all I really have is this feeling that the movie was being moved in a direction that the script wasn’t really built for.
The core of my issue is the actual main character journey and how it interacts with the larger story around it. Laura (Patricia Arquette) is a medical doctor who lost her husband and son in some kind of accident or robbery at her home before the film starts. With her friend Andy (Frances McDormand), she goes to Burma on some kind of touristy adventure to get away from her life and try to find meaning in the mystical East. The problem, of course, is that Burma is a military dictatorship to find meaning in the mystical East. The problem, of course, is that Burma is a military dictatorship that is on the verge of a large crackdown of democracy protests led by Suu Kyi (Adelle Lutz). It seems like a bad idea to have gone in general, but the timing was just the worst.
Knowing that things are getting bad, Andy leaves, but Laura can’t go because she’s lost her passport and the American consulate can’t get her a replacement for a few days (really? The country is on the verge of falling apart, but okay). She decides to take the time to go into the countryside of Burma with a taxi driver, U Aung Ko (U Aung Ko), who is also a student leader in the nascent anti-junta movement.
If you see the promotional material, especially the still-image stuff like posters, it really emphasizes a particular moment in the jungle when Laura and U Aung get driven off the road by military forces and end up in a body of water with Laura pulling U Aung out of the water, covered in mud. I think it implies something about the film that the film isn’t all that interested in pursuing: a harrowing physical journey centered on a woman barely surviving in a dangerous environment. That sort of stripped down storytelling isn’t what the film delivers, instead focusing on some kind of Romantic journey of self-repair and discovery for Laura.
The central problem is that this story isn’t Laura’s story. The story of the fall of Burma and the specific oppression experienced by the people is not something she’s actually involved in. It’s not her fight, it’s the fight of people like U Aung or Min Han (Johnny Cheah), the student who has fled to the countryside to avoid the oppression of the military junta. Focusing on Laura who’s discovering all of this for the first time is the sort of cheap, roman a clef shortcut to inserting a Western audience into a foreign conflict when audiences are generally smart enough to be able to attach themselves to people who look different from them experiencing harrowing situations. That Laura’s journey is about her overcoming her own trauma makes the whole thing feel trite and almost insulting. She’s surrounded by people who are fearing for their lives, and she’s spending her time there getting over her own issues. I mean, I get what the movie is trying to do, using the people of Burma and their suffering to show Laura that there’s more to life and she needs to reach out, but the long, slow process as she watches people terrorized and literally murdered while she very steadily gets over it all makes her seem surprisingly self-centered.
The manifestation of her troubles is that she sees visions of her son from time to time, and it’s because she can’t forget him despite everything going on around her. That balance is all wrong. I wonder if my problems with this part of the film would fade away if they rejiggered it so that Laura, once she saw the violence and oppression of Burma, could not remember her child and husband because her problems with seeing blood instantly vanished. She realized instantly that her problems were small in comparison, and her son coming back to her begging her not to forget her while Laura pleads with him, saying that she could never forget him, but this is more important right now. Something like that. I know, the loss of a child is huge to a person, but the balance dramatically is all wrong here. That she takes forever to fully embrace the fact that she needs to set aside her own issues and work to help the people without regard to herself flies in the face of her being selfless in the end. It took days in the jungle of watching the people suffer for her to put on the gloves and say she was going to help as long as necessary. She does help here and there, of course, like a moment where she has to go into an occupied town to retrieve antibiotics in order to save U Aung’s life, giving her that slow ramp up towards her selfless attitude by the end, but that just rubs me wrong even more.
This imbalance is pretty uniform across the film and the main reason I find it so distasteful. Laura is so central to the film that she pushes aside everyone actually being oppressed. There’s a moment late in the film where one of the minor, Burmese characters dies, and I had no idea who he was as it was happening. Further reflection revealed him to be one of the most prominent secondary characters, but that really undermined the whole emotional impact of the moment, and it’s a key emotional moment.
Boorman, though, remains a talented technical filmmaker despite the massive issues with the script, and he manages the production really well. Performances are good, especially from Arquette and U Aung who anchor the film, and the scenery around them never looks less than sumptuous. Individual moments are handled well within their own context, like that bit where Laura has to find the medicine, even fighting off an attempted rape, providing what little tension and entertainment the movie can muster up.
However, as a whole, the film falls flat on its face consistently. It has the wrong focus to tell its story, and that incorrect focus undermines the whole thing around it.