John Boorman, the British director, has set his new film, 'Beyond Rangoon', in the hell that is modern Burma. It is, he insists, a drama, not a tract; but, to his Burmese crew and cast, it's a vital unveiling of the truth about their homeland. E JANE DICKSON reports.
3 December 1994
E. Jane Dickson
The Malaysian jungle smells of boiled cabbage. It is 112 degrees in the shade of the tropical canopy, the humidity is, literally, breathtaking, and the rank vegetation is simmering on the stalk. Sneaky‑looking plants of the triffid genus weep stinging sap into the warm mud as our party slithers down a river bend to look at a tree. It is a fine tree, arching gracefully over the turbid brown water, but a tree in the jungle is not a startling thing. This, however, is the tree that spoke to the film director John Boorman when he was looking for the right location for his new film, Beyond Rangoon.
"Once John had found the tree, everything else just fell into place," explains Peter, the film's American publicist. Peter, for whom the term "laid‑back" might have been invented, speaks so extremely slowly that I fear I may lose the power of reason before he gets to the end of his sentence. Boorman, Peter explains, is very much at one with Nature. And if there's one thing Boorman likes more than trees, it's rivers. In Beyond Rangoon, Peter goes on, in the measured, emphatic tones of a psychiatric charge-nurse, the river is a metaphor. The current is like life itself, and when the two stars of the film fall in the river, it's as though they are washed clean of their previous existence. "They have, like, this baptism or re‑birth. It's a really big psychological moment."
John Boorman's commitment to the natural world is sincere and eloquent. The Emerald Forest (1985) was a tribute to the disappearing culture of the Amazonian Indians, with the rainforest itself as the majestic star of the show. Excalibur's lyrically Green treatment was an intelligent interpretation of the Arthurian legend. But there is something in Peter's awestruck tones as he describes the director's artistic affinity with the rocks and stones and trees that makes you long for Bruce Willis to come zooming down in a B‑52, trailing clouds of DDT and nuking every natural metaphor in sight.
It is a relief to arrive back at the main set, a reconstruction of a Burmese refugee camp, where giggly Malaysian schoolchildren are queueing up to be slathered in synthetic gore. Blood ‑ corn syrup mixed with red dye ‑ comes in three varieties, "dark", "clotted" and "jelly". The hideously viscous jelly blood is by far the most popular with the young extras who mug and writhe enthusiastically, despite the efforts of the assistant director to get them to look hollow‑eyed and listless. "Din! stop laughing, you're supposed to be hurt," hollers the AD through her electric megaphone.
Obligingly, Din clutches his throat, rolls his eyes and dies like a dog in the dust.
Beyond Rangoon is set against the turbulent 1988 civil uprising in Burma. An adventure film (with, let us not forget, a strong psychological undertow), firmly in the tradition of Boorman's early successes, Hell in The Pacific (1969) and Deliverance (1972). The plot is straightforward: a young American woman on holiday in Burma gets separated from her tour group, falls foul of the authorities and teams up with an elderly political dissident to escape the country, imbibing quantities of Buddhist philosophy (and soul-cleansing river water) along the way.
Boorman is at pains to point out that Beyond Rangoon is "a film with a political background, not a political film", but both he and the Burmese nationals who have collaborated on the production hope that its release will focus international attention on the largely unreported atrocities committed by the Burmese government over the past 20 years.
Since 1962, when General Ne Win seized control of the government in a bloodless coup, Burma has been under military rule. Ne Win's "Burmese Way to Socialism" was based on an extreme and idiosyncratic ideology: all private enterprise was taken over by the government, a strict isolationist policy was imposed, Buddhism was designated the state religion and the teaching of ethnic minority languages was forbidden in rural schools. Ne Win's belief in yedayache, an arcane Burmese discipline which teaches that fate can be controlled by performing certain mystically divined actions, prompted him to change overnight the rule of the road in Burma from driving on the left to driving on the right. In 1974, when he refused Buddhist burial rites to Burma's most famous statesman, U Thant, the UN Secretary General, students of Rangoon University snatched the body for burial in university grounds. The armed forces moved in and more than 300 unarmed students were shot. In 1987, Ne Win's passionate attachment to numerology and the propitious powers of the number nine led him to demonetise Burma's 25,35 and 75 kyat bank notes in favour of 45 and 90 kyat notes, a move which invalidated 80 per cent of the nation's currency and wiped out the life savings of many Burmese.
On 8 August 1988, there were mass demonstrations against the government. Once again the armed forces were called in, hundreds of demonstrators were killed and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was implemented.
When Aung San Suu Kyi the daughter of Aung San –the architect of Burmese independence who was assassinated in 1947- set up her own political party, the National League for Democracy, Burmese and ethnic minorities rallied to her cause. The government placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest but sanctioned a democratic election. However, when the National League for Democracy achieved a landslide victory, the government ignored the results. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, remains under house arrest, and the country is still run by the armed forces. Ethnic groups like the Karen, the Karenni and the Mong have taken to guerrilla warfare and SLORC has instituted a "Four Cuts" policy against them (they are pledged to cut off the ethnic groups' food, their finances, their communication and the heads of their leaders). The 81‑year‑old Ne Win has officially retired, but his influence on the government has not diminished.
"Movies are not a proper forum for the discussion of ideas or political rights or wrongs," says Boorman, who spent time behind Karen enemy lines to research the background for Beyond Rangoon. "But a movie can provoke an emotional response, so that the next time people read about Burma they may take more notice. When I made The Emerald Forest, it did have quite a big practical effect. The Brazilian government was so nervous about the flak they were going to get when the film came out that they legalised the ecological movement which had formerly been proscribed."
For the Burmese members of the cast and crew, however, involvement in Beyond Rangoon is a considered political statement. U Aung Ko, who plays opposite Patricia Arquette as the dissident intellectual, defected from Burma in 1975; he was a professor at the Institute of Political Science and official interpreter for the Burmese Socialist Programme Party. "I was disgusted by people who called themselves socialists and did not act for socialism," he says in a quiet, light voice that does not mask the depth of his emotion. Aung Ko now lives in Paris, where he co‑ordinates an international pressure group, Aung San Suu Kyi Liberty. Boorman had originally approached the organisation to see if they could recommend an English‑speaking Burmese actor to play the lead in Beyond Rangoon but was so impressed by the determined dignity of Aung Ko, that he asked him to test for the part himself. Aung Ko's English is fluent, but less than confident. He had never acted in his life, let alone performed for a camera, but he said yes.
"I had no dreams of acting," said Aung Ko, but he was persuaded by Boorman to play the central character, a dissident intellectual, to help his homeland.
"I had no dreams of acting," Aung Ko explains. "But we Burmese have a very profound feeling to help our people. So I am very glad to do a service for Mr John Boorman, and hope I can do credit to him. He is on the right path, I think, for democratisation and human rights. I am already a wanted man in Burma, so why should I not do this film?"
Aung Ko's part in the film requires him to develop a deep, albeit asexual, intimacy with Patricia Arquette, something he initially found extremely difficult. His acute sense of delicacy was offended, when Boorman, coaching him for a particularly emotional scene, asked him to go through the moves with his (Boorman's) wife, Isabella.
"I told him: 'John, a woman right in front of her own husband ‑ it is not right. This is something I cannot do."
In fact, Aung Ko and Arquette quickly developed an unfeigned bond. "Aung Ko brought such incredible calmness and humility onto the set with him, that I think we were all affected by it," says Arquette. "But he was so shy that for ages when we were doing emotional stuff he would only look at my ear."
Also, to Arquette, who knows an insurance risk when she sees one, Aung Ko's absolute trust in Boorman bordered at times on recklessness.
"We had to do this scene in the river ‑ it's this big symbolic thing ‑ and there are these really big leeches and water snakes in there. And I said to John, 'Just tell me there are no crocodiles', and he says, 'No, they're all downstream, there's too much movement in the water for them to come up here. They only come looking for humans if they can sense that you're swimming here.' I feel really comforted by that, but Aung Ko just jumps right in. He has so much faith in everybody, he thinks nothing can happen to him."
You can see her point. The river bed in this malarial region is the colour and consistency of coffee mousse and six‑inch leeches are just about the cutest things in there.
"People find leeches unpleasant," says Boorman, wonderingly. "But they don't hurt, you don't even feel them on you and they don't do any harm. Really, they're much less bothersome than mosquitoes. I don't take risks with actors. I've done a lot of films in a lot of remote places and I've never had a serious accident. I never use stunt men, because if you do, it's an admission that the film is dangerous. The river scene looked extraordinarily difficult, but it was safe, and there's something about rivers there's something that happens between the film emulsion and water ‑ that is wonderful. The most crucial scene in the movie is when Patricia plunges in to the river with Aung Ko and emerges from the depths, it's as if she dies and is reborn…”
At 62, Boorman is a gaunt but powerful figure, with the look of a disappointed magus. "I feel", he wrote in his 1992 journal, "like Merlin, an old wizard living in a world where there is no place for magic." Certainly, there is little room for magic in Ipoh, the commercial town south of Penang where the production company has set up its headquarters. If Milton Keynes were ever to cast around for a twin town, it could do no better than Ipoh, where traffic lights pass for local colour.
"Malaysia is a country totally without any kind of spirit," Boorman says flatly. "We came here partly because the terrain corresponded to Burma, and partly because Malaysia, as a Muslim country, was initially strongly opposed to the Burmese government, which, among its other atrocities, expelled a quarter of a million Muslims across the border into Bangladesh."
In the interim between planning and shooting, however, the Malaysian government entered into trade talks with Burma and stipulated that, unless Boorman re‑wrote the script, expunging every reference to Burma and setting the film instead in an imaginary Southeast Asian state, permission to film there would be withdrawn. A bowdlerised script was duly submitted and, while the crew is in the country, the film is to be referred to only as Beyond. Even so, the film unit has been under constant, and not very secret, surveillance by Malaysian military intelligence and Boorman suspects that there may be spies sent by SLORC among the Burmese members of the cast and crew, many of whom have been brought into the country on false passports, because Malaysia refused their entry visas.
"It was a very real risk," says Boorman, three months later, from the security of a cutting room in Shepperton. "We knew for a fact that SLORC had daily reports on our progress, so at least one of the Burmese people we were employing had to be reporting back to them. SLORC are notoriously devious in their activities and I had this fear that they were going to plant drugs on me [possession of drugs carries the death penalty in Malaysia. I can tell you, I was very relieved to get out of there."
Back on the set, Dr U Kyaw Win, a psychologist in Orange County, New York, and Burmese political exile who is acting as technical and linguistic advisor on the film, is less circumspect. "I want to get the hell out of this country," he says bitterly. "I have a hell of a problem teaching these Malaysian actors how to say things in Burmese. They insist on writing down the Burmese script in Arabic and that way it's all screwed up. I tell them, you learn a language by hearing and speaking, the writing comes later. But they have an attitude problem."
Dr Win, a peppery character with an implacable eye for detail, is also engaged in a series of skirmishes with the film's art director. He is annoyed that the Médecins sans Frontières armbands worn by extras are misspelt (the final "s" on Frontières is missing) and has just emerged from a heated discussion about the positioning of flags on Burmese longboats. "The flag was on the front of the boat," he says, dancing with irritation. "That is very wrong. The flags must be at the back.
"You cannot have a perfect facsimile on a film set," he continues. "You can exercise poetic licence to a certain extent, but you cannot stretch the definition too far. So what we do is, we sabotage the art director when he's not watching!"
Eddie Fowlie, a white‑haired man with the stately bearing of Old King Cole has been in the film business 52 years, and was art director on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Bridge on the River Kwai. He is, one suspects, well up to Dr Win's mark. "Ah yes, technical advisors," he says, in the tones of an entomologist settling into a discussion of his favourite species of gnat, "very interesting chaps, full of ideas. But, my dear, we've got a movie to make."
Art and truth are combustible reagents. It is exactly this combustion, argues Boorman, that powers big‑screen films. "I started as a documentary film maker," he explains, "but I got frustrated by the limitations of the form. As a documentary director, you're always on the outside, all the interesting things are happening when you're not there. Little by little my documentaries became dramas, which came out of this desire to grasp the inner truth of a situation. A film should create its own world, not necessarily an invented world, but a contiguous, parallel world, because you absolutely cannot achieve reality on film. Even if you have a documentary camera hidden in the bushes, it's still not real, it's film. Ingmar Bergman said once that what he tried to do was not to make a scene real, but to make it live. That's what I'm trying to do here."
Down by the river's edge, Aung Ko is being photographed for this magazine. It is clearly an embarrassment to him, but he concentrates on the photographer's directions ‑ as he concentrates on the advice of the make‑up team, the details of his costume and the nuances of his script ‑ as if his life depends on it. "I must think very hard about this film, because I want other people to think about my country," he explains. "As Buddhists, a moment of thought is very important to us."
Dr Win takes a more pragmatic line. "Look," he says, "I'm not a movie‑goer. A year ago I didn't know John Boorman from beans, but the world needs to know what is going on in our country and the world must react. In Burma, we have a saying: 'If my neighbour's house is on fire, I better be damn careful. My house could be next.'"