In making 'The Lady', Michelle Yeoh and Luc Besson were acutely aware it could hurt Suu Kyi
Delighted to give cinema another powerful female figure – a character all too rare on screens – Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh portrays Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in “The Lady”.
To perfect her portrayal, the heroine of kung fu films spent six months learning Burmese, shed 10 kilograms – and met Suu Kyi in person. She was the only member of the crew granted entry to the country, albeit for just 24 hours.
And now that the Burmese government has seen the film directed by Luc Besson, Yeoh is blacklisted from visiting again. We were able to speak to both of them about the circumstances.
What was your perception of Burma prior to making this film?
Michelle Yeoh: I knew very little about Burma, and all we knew about Suu Kyi was from television news. In 1991 when Daw [Auntie] Suu received her Nobel Peace Prize, I was proud to be an Asian woman because she was the first to receive one.
We don’t have many iconic heroines. As an actress, you always try to find characters that are very challenging at many different levels, and here you have such an amazing story.
What was the most challenging part?
MY: Finding the right director! No matter how well you prepare as an actress, it’s the director who presents the whole picture. Who could I trust who shared the same love and passion for this woman? Then I called Luc Besson.
The preparations were quite difficult too – gathering all the information with no direct sources. [Suu Kyi’s husband] Michael Aris passed away long ago. The family hadn’t seen her for 10 years or more. All they had was memories of memories. We had to piece them together, and at the end of the day you have to trust your instinct.
Luc Besson: We brought a lot of Burmese people onto the set. That was very important. The first day when Michelle arrived on set as Suu Kyi, almost all of them were crying. I knew then that we were not far from the truth.
The most difficult thing for me on this was making sure we didn’t betray her. When we started, she was under house arrest, the country was under the iron fist of the military, and we knew we couldn’t just do a happy, very Hollywood story. We had to be serious and tell the truth.
That was difficult because we couldn’t meet her or the ones around her. We were really in the dark. And since I’m not Burmese or Asian, it was hard to feel that compartment.
Now, though, I can tell the difference between a Burmese and a Thai!
The Burmese language is difficult to learn.
MY: You just have to roll up your sleeves and say, “I’m going in do this.” By the second week I told Virginie [Besson-Silla, a producer], “I’m going to run my head into the wall!” – written Burmese characters are like little dolls running around – but I had to the most wonderful Burmese lecturer.
In the end we decided to write the dialogue in pinyin [as used to transcribe Chinese into Western characters] and I just memorised and memorised.
Has Suu Kyi had a chance to see the film?
LB: Not yet. The film is very private and emotional for her. She said she’d watch it much later. You know the actor who plays her father, Aung San, really looks like her father. He’s a Burmese from the north of Thailand and was honoured to play Aung San.
MY: Even now, whenever I watch the movie, I still cry. Remember she didn’t know what was happening with her husband and two children in England while she was campaigning in Burma.
There is gunfire and bloodshed at the beginning of the film. Violence versus non-violence is a critical issue.
LB: The military were very violent in the ’80s and ’90s, much more than the pictures show. We read Amnesty International’s extremely well-documented reports about the hundreds of thousands of imprisoned Burmese, about their ordeal and the way the military treated them.
But the film is quite toned down with respect to the generals, because some of the stories we heard were so savage that they would have been incredible on film.
You had Thai crewmembers and actors.
LB: The crewmembers are very consistent. From the first day to the last they were always on time, always at the top. We had a couple of Thai actors [including “Day” Thaitanium]. It was a real exchange. It was really a good souvenir! Even the government people and the police really tried to make things possible.
It is a very creative politics for films and that’s why more and more film teams are coming here. The message you’re giving to other European directors is that Thailand is fantastic and it’s safe.
You recreated Suu Kyi’s residence here.
LB: Her house was a very important element. She spent 14 years there, cut off from the world. We studied a lot of photos of the house and built an exact replica in the north of Bangkok, down to the last detail. The piano is the same brand as Suu Kyi’s, and the frames on the photos of her parents are the same. The house has since been demolished, though.
Have you had any feedback from the Burmese government?
LB: No, we don’t have much contact [laughs]. We made a story about the ’80s and ’90s, about the past. There’s nothing against the people who are elected today – we are not criticising them at all.
I’m from France, which did bad things in the past in Nigeria and North Africa. We were not so good. It’s fine when a country can see its past and say, “We were wrong and we can try to make things better today.” I just hope [Burma] will do that in the next couple of years. You know it took 500 years for the Pope to say the Catholic Church was wrong to burn Joan of Arc! I hope they don’t wait 500 years.
Are you allowed to visit Burma?
LB: I haven’t asked for a visa for a simple reason: I really want Suu Kyi to be politically involved and do her best for her country. We don’t want to put her in a bad situation. If today we ask for a visa and they say no and we complain, that could hurt her.
We’ll wait a couple of months to see whether she gets elected and then, calmly and slowly, we’ll ask if we can go back to that beautiful country and see our friends.
Michelle, you’ve called this a love story. How does that foster democracy?
MY: When the audience is touched, they’ll remember and want to do more. When you see the commitment, the sacrifice – not just of Daw Suu in Burma but of her husband at Oxford – you feel a connection with them.
I really hope more young people see the film, because they need to understand not just about this remarkable woman but what democracy means, and that there is more to life than their own selfish little lives.
You met Suu Kyi.
MY: She’s very curious person, very smart. She loves to know what’s going on with you! You are bringing the world to her. She hasn’t been outside the country since 1988. That’s what I love about her.
And the greatest emotion I felt was when I saw her with her son. They are loving, very passionate.
LB: We all wish to meet her, but right now she’s very busy campaigning for the election. We just hope that one day she’ll be the president of Burma.