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‘Beyond Rangoon’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 25, 1995


John Boorman
Patricia Arquette;
Frances McDormand;
Adele Lutz
Under 17 restricted

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If British director John Boorman were not such an exhilarating filmmaker, if his images weren't so enthralling and visceral, "Beyond Rangoon" might well be buried under the weight of half-baked ideas and radical chic.

This uneven film tells the story of Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), a Los Angeles doctor on a tour with her sister (Frances McDormand) through the Far East. The year is 1988, and the vacation is meant to take Laura's mind off the loss of her husband and son, who were savagely murdered in a robbery. It's clear early on, however, that the trip isn't working. With her family gone, Laura seems closer to death, somehow, than to life. As she travels around Burma, visiting temples and monasteries, her face remains impassive, unmoved. The dark sunglasses she wears seem designed not just to shield her from the light, but to block out experience itself. When a small child is severely injured right in front of her, the doctor turns away because the blood reminds her of her own son's death.

There is something of a death wish, too, in the careless manner in which Laura wanders through the tense streets of Rangoon after curfew. During one of her late-night walks, though, she runs into a group of pro-democracy protesters—led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi (a real Burmese leader played by Adele Lutz)—en route to a confrontation with government troops.

The encounter—which reaches its climax when Aung San Suu Kyi walks slowly through the ranks of armed soldiers—seems to touch something in Laura. She decides she wants to see more of the country, and not just that part on the tourist track.

All this takes up about the first third of the film, and, frankly, it's pretty much a dead zone. Boorman ("Point Blank," "Hope and Glory") attempts to tie this sheltered American woman's tragedy to the political atrocities in Burma, but the analogy doesn't resonate. In fact, the scope of suffering in Burma almost makes Laura's loss seem minor by comparison. Perhaps Boorman—working from a screenplay he wrote with Bill Rubenstein and Alex Lasker—meant for Laura's tragedy to seem comparatively small.

Laura's salvation comes from being exposed to a suffering greater than her own. Her rehabilitation is more personal and spiritual than political, and it's only when Boorman abandons the social realm and concentrates on Laura's primal struggle that the film comes to life.

This section of the film is more engaging, partly because, for the first time, Laura seems to want something. The trip beyond Rangoon—that is, the metaphorical journey into the unknown—is Laura's confrontation with her own fear, and it brings out a fierceness in her. Suddenly, because of the political injustice she has experienced, she is alive, engaged, reconnected.

Laura's political conversion is the least convincing aspect of "Beyond Rangoon," if only because the film really doesn't need it. Certainly, its backdrop draws attention to Burma's political troubles, but the connection seems strained.

Still, there are moments to be marveled at, such as the staging of student protests in Rangoon. And Boorman does a magnificent job of capturing the mood and pace of Southeast Asian life. Arquette, too, makes a generally favorable impression. Though initially she struggles with the character's lack of expression, she shows real grit when the chips are down.

The last part of the film, in which Laura and her comrades make their way to Thailand, is so tense that the earlier doldrums are almost forgotten. "Beyond Rangoon" is an odd movie, brilliant in places, but frustrating all the same.

Beyond Rangoon is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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