BEYOND RANGOON

This is a hauntingly beautiful study of death and rebirth, of loss and recovery, of the a cross-cutting interplay between the microcosms of personal desire and a macrocosm of political tyranny.

It is a must-see if you haven’t already.  Really!

The acting in Beyond Rangoon [1995] is superb — intense but always controlled, and the photography has about it a gorgeous lushness as if to ask pointedly how, in an almost Ovidian way, a landscape of such exquisite beauty can nurture such sinister malevolence.  Laura, a doctor whose child and husband have been murdered, has gone on a trip to Burma to try to forget her grief.  It proves to be a harrowing journey into the katabatic heart of human darkness, represented, first, by the despotic military of Burma and, more personally, in a soldier’s attempted rape of her in a village hospital.  Here where, emblematically, she qua doctor would heal and save lives she murders her assailant in cold blood in order to save herself.

The geography of the katabasis, or formal descent into Hell, is almost oppressive: thick, clinging jungles, swift and rapacious rivers demarcating zones of reality, swaying walk-bridges across high gorges, maleficent soldiers and helping denizens of this other world that lies beyond the relative civilization of Rangoon but is, in a sense, a more real reality of how lives are lived.  Laura, sleepless, goes out into the Rangoon night to watch the Democracy Movement and the stunning courage of its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in facing down armed militia.

But during her night foray she has lost her passport.  Suggestive of the loss of identity that, she feels, at this point in her life is an accurate reflection of her emotional state, she must be left behind until the American Embassy can issue her a replacement.  While waiting, she walk around Rangoon and meets an older gentleman, Aung Ko, a former professor at the University of Rangoon who fell foul of the military and now takes foreigners on tours.  He is a clear Hermes figure, escorting Laura not only into the interior of Burma but also into the unknown territory of her own being.  As in all such odysseys, she learns to learn about herself and attain a view of herself that is more accommodating of her true place in the larger scheme of things.  While they are out in the countryside the military cracks down on the ‘hooligans’, and a return to Rangoon is imperative.  But the soldiers are after them.

The mode shifts now to that of escape film, and it is a heart-stopping journey within journey.  Laura almost leaves on a train headed for the capital when she sees Aung Ko being beaten by soldiers and one of his former students get shot for trying to protect the old man. It is enough for her to step off and go to Aung Ko’s help.

Now it is she who dons the role of her own Hermes, guiding herself and the wounded Aung Ko back to safety.  Crashing their car into a river while being pursued by soldiers, she must rescue a dying Aung Ko, in the process losing her replacement passport: drenched by the river and covered in shoreline mud, she is no longer Laura, American citizen grieving for her loss, but a survivor and rescuer who, in a truly stunning visual image, initiates a self-maieutic process of spiritual rebirth out of the riparian slime.  Buying passage on a bamboo raft heading for Rangoon, she nurses Aung Ko back to health, largely thanks to her incredibly brave search for antibiotics in the ‘rape’ village — where she witnesses further acts of military atrocity against civilians.  Back in Rangoon, she is arrested in front of the American Embassy, and just escapes in the chaos of a huge demonstration. With Aung Ko and others she finally makes it across the river to a camp in Thailand, where she begins to help in the hospital compound.

At the start of the film, Laura is a self-preoccupied woman, even to the point of obsession with her grief. She constantly wears dark, opaque sunglasses, as if she wishes to shut out the world and not see it the way it is — in all its ugliness and beauty.  Her soul is blind.  Among a series of dreams she has about her murdered son and husband, in the last one, just before crossing over to Thailand, her boy comes to her in the night and tells her she has to let go of him.  He had to go, he explains to her.  She tells Aung Ko that she can no longer hang on to her child — as indeed she as living cannot hang on to the dead.  It does not mean that she will ever forget him.

There is a powerfully evocative sequence during the journey on the bamboo raft in which the owner’s son, somewhat older than her dead Danny, performs heroically on her behalf in such a way that without his help she and Aung Ko would never have made it.  In terms of the mythic katabasis that underpins the overarching shape of this film, he is a little Hermes, like the young man who helps Odysseus with moly [μῶλυ] in Odyssey 10.305, as the rafter does Laura with a gun.

Indeed, children are a leit-motif throughout the film, at every turn reminding her of her own lost son and of hope for the future.  In a scene early on in the film she buys a small bird and lets it fly free — but the birder whistles it back and cages it again.  Laura is not ready to be free, but she will be after she sees all that she is shortly to see. For the heart of an oppressed and suffering people who are able to endure the living of daily life instills in her a similar kind of attitude.  Their fight for freedom from external dictatorship translates itself in this film into her own at first clumsy but later intense struggle to liberate herself from her own interior tyranny that holds her soul in chains.

This film moved me very deeply, and after watching the final credits roll by to the soft whistling of an ethereal flute I felt … somehow … pure.

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One Response to BEYOND RANGOON

  1. Now I want to see it!

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