I heard Aung San Suu Kyi on television recently and thought she sounded remarkably like Michelle Yeoh in the movie The Lady. Ok you can stop laughing now. Michelle Yeoh played the role of the Burmese hero of democracy in the movie. Bernice and I caught the movie some evenings ago and understand now why some of our friends hold this remarkable lady in such high regard. We also grew in our respect for the acting abilities of Michelle Yeoh who has come a long way from the period sword fighting movies of her early acting career. Here is how one reviewer put it:
Yeoh gives a pitch-perfect impersonation of Suu Kyi. The physical resemblance between the two is uncanny, and the actress has the physical presence to suggest some of the confidence and power the activist must have displayed in facing down the military. But the role has been written so guardedly that she has trouble breathing life into it at times. (Daniel Eagen, “Film Review: The Lady,” Film Journal International, April 4, 2012.)
The Lady is an example of how biopics can help us understand the personal and human dimensions of history in a way that straightforward commentaries cannot. Here is a brief thumbnail of Suu Kyi’s story.
Having gone back from Burma to Oxford in order to nurse her sick mother (1988), she (Aung San Suu Kyi) gave no leaving date. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years, from July 1989 until she was released on November 13, 2010. In the early months of Suu Kyi’s restrictions, her Democracy party won a decisive Parliamentary majority, but the military remained all-powerful.
Unwilling to return to England in case she was never allowed to return, Suu Kyi was inevitably separated from her two sons and husband Michael Aris (1972-1999), who died from prostate cancer. The Lady illustrates the personal sacrifices which Suu Kyi made in order to maintain pressure on the Burmese government. She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize accordingly. (Graham Young, “Film Review: The Lady,” Birmingham Mail, 7 January 2012)
The movie divides its time between scenes in Burma and scenes in England. Somehow the scenes in England feel more realistic. The scenes in Burma seem to feature stock characters: innocent students, evil generals, faithful servants, grateful citizens, sadistic soldiers, etc. But then this is hagiography and when we see the Suu Kyi character silhouetted against the light, we see her aura, we get it. Of course all movies generalise and simplify. The nature of the medium can never capture the complexity of historical events and the people involved. But movies can help to teach us powerful lessons and this one does it well.
This movie is meant to be a love story; first the love between Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris, and the love the couple had for the people of Burma. We see Michael releasing his wife to pursue her mission and supporting her all the way. Indeed their two sons sacrificed too, as they were deprived of the presence of their mother. We see Suu Kyi offering to release Michael from his marriage vows, knowing this was a raw deal for him — and his refusal.
The ultimate sacrifice was Ms Suu Kyi’s refusing to leave Burma to be at the side of her husband when he was dying of cancer. She knew that if she left she would not be able to re-enter Burma and that would be the end of her direct influence. She did offer to go back though, and again we see Michael refusing the offer knowing that if she left it would mean the end of all they had worked for. A very powerful moment in the movie is when Suu Kyi hears of the death of her husband.
The movie gives us a context for understanding the cost of her recent victory in the recent Burmese elections.
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar election officials confirmed Monday that Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party won a landslide victory in historic by-elections. The democracy icon said she hopes the vote will mark the start of a new era for the long-repressed country.
Suu Kyi spoke to thousands of cheering supporters who gathered outside her party’s headquarters a day after the closely watched balloting.
“The success we are having is the success of the people,” Suu Kyi said, as the sea of supporters chanted her name and thrust their hands in the air to flash “V” for victory signs.
The state Election Commission confirmed that her National League for Democracy had swept to a victory that will put it at the head of a small opposition bloc in the military-dominated parliament. (Aye Aye Win, “Myanmar’s Suu Kyi hopes victory is dawn of new era,” Associated Press, April 3, 2012.)
There is obviously a long road ahead on Myanmar’s journey to political freedom. But the fact that she has come thus far is because Suu Kyi, and others like her, paid a heavy price.
What are our takeaways from this movie and the story behind it? Two come to mind.
- In the fallen world we live in, nothing good and significant happens without sacrifice. This should be utterly clear for followers of Jesus Christ especially on Good Friday. Here is Jesus’s statement of His mission: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 NIV) Jesus’s sacrifice made possible our salvation and the possibility of a new creation.
- None of us can do good alone. Suu Kyi’s work was made possible because many people sacrificed … her family, and many many others, whose names we do not know. Making a difference is not the job for heroic individuals working alone. One of the first things that Jesus did when He began His public ministry was to call His disciples to Himself (Mark 3:13-19).
Jesus’s death on the cross was no act of heroism. It was an act of obedience. Directed by His Father, He did what was needed (Mark 14:32-36). Followers of Jesus are not called to heroism either. But we too are called to obedience and that will involve sacrifice on behalf of others. What has God called you to give your lives for? Who are you walking with?