This amazing film is probably the greatest triumph of John Boorman's long directing career. All the fire of his blazing courage and outrage are blended in this incredible portrayal of the dilemma of modern Burma. There is probably no military dictatorship anywhere in the world more brutal than that of Burma, which surpasses even the unlamented tyranny of Saddam Hussein for cruelty and sheer evil. It was like that when this film was made, and it is still like that now, 16 years later. Nothing has changed except that Aung San Suu Kyi is 16 years older. She is played delicately and to perfection in this film, in a brief and moving scene where she gracefully walks up to soldiers pointing rifles at her, brushes them aside, and passes on. In a sense, she is not just the Conscience of Burma but the current Conscience of the World. For she remains faithful to a cause which the world has heartlessly abandoned. Because there is no oil in Burma, it will not be invaded by the United States, Tony Blair will not go there with his pious platitudes and grin of a madman, BP will not ruin the coastline, and the arms industry must be content merely with selling guns for the population and 'rebels' to be murdered, not for invading troops to be opposed (what a pity there is less need for tanks and fighter planes, not to mention drones). Why is it that the Burmese population are so thoughtless that they allow themselves to be shot with simple rifle bullets, so that cannon shells are not required? The Burmese military really are bad customers, they kill on the cheap. But of course, like the Nazis, they get plenty of raping and torture in first, as what fun is it being a vicious brute if you cannot lord it over the people you are about to massacre before you do so? Even a Burmese soldier has his vanity. The most amazing performance in this film is by a Burmese man whose own name is the same as that of the character he plays, U Aung Ko. This is the only film in which he ever appeared, according to IMDb, so he was not an actor but 'a real person'. (Note: do real persons exist on screen outside of documentaries? This is an existential question for cinéastes.) In trying to find out more about this man, I googled the name and discovered that there is another U Aung Ko, actually U Aung Ko Win, also known as Saya Kyaung, who is closely connected with the present sinister regime, probably a relative but certainly not the same man as our hero in the film. Then I discovered that our hero lives in exile in Paris, having left Burma to live in France in 1975 (where he had previously studied at the Sorbonne), where he is married to a French woman, has assisted in the preparation of a documentary film about his country's plight, and works as a translator and language teacher. So that's who he is. The other lead in the film is Patricia Arquette, who gives a magnificently stalwart and powerful performance and clearly endured a great deal of physical hardship in doing so. The two of them work very well together and generate significant chemistry (not of the romantic kind but of the rarer kind based on understanding and friendship), which helps make the film such a spectacular success. Frances McDormand appears early in the film as Arquette's sister who has to leave her behind because she is forced to leave Burma with a tour group while Arquette is stranded while she waits for travel papers from the incompetent US Embassy. McDormand is, as usual, wonderful, but then she is one of our most admired actresses, who never disappoints. Arquette has been widowed and is recovering from intense grief, and as a result of her amazing adventures which ensue 'beyond Rangoon' when she gets out into the countryside (officially barred to foreigners), she finds a new meaning and value to life in helping others. Several of her companions are killed along the way. There are many excellent performances from young Burmese, or actors who play Burmese, since obviously this film could not be made in Burma (it was filmed in Malaysia and Thailand) and several of the players are really of diverse ethnic backgrounds. We see many horrible massacres and rampant violence and oppression taking place continually. Unfortunately, though many films with an axe to grind have tended to show these things for tendentious purposes, in this case I fear it is all too true. It does not appear that one can exaggerate on film any of the atrocities committed either by the Nazis of Germany or the Burmese military of today. This film really should be shown in schools. It is such a powerful lesson about the real world, so inspiring and horrifying at the same time. And yet those same parents who are content to let their kids sit around all day watching meaningless blood and gore on the screen with fictitious 'action heroes', and play computer games where everybody gets rewarded for killing other people (is that sick or what?), would doubtless complain because there are many grim real life situations portrayed here. Such is the 'hypocrisy of suburbia' into which real life rarely enters. We should all be giving copies of this film to all of our friends. And if the politicians were not all such thickos, they might even do something about the West's foreign policy.
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