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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Rangoon' an Uneasy Mixture of Politics and Entertainment


Director John Boorman has a strong personal connection to Myanmar, starting with his father's presence there during World War I, when this isolated Asian country was still known as Burma. Concerned about the current military regime's stifling of political life, he in part made "Beyond Rangoon" to expose that brutal situation to the kind of international audience motion pictures can ensure.

If "Beyond Rangoon's" intentions are laudable, the film itself is not. And this despite the fact that Boorman, here working with director of photography John Seale, shows once again that he is a compelling visual craftsman whose strong filmmaking sense is something for others to envy.

But when the focus goes from the pictorial to the dramatic, "Beyond Rangoon" proves to be something of a devil's bargain. In attempting to make its politics palatable as entertainment, the film has grafted them onto a boatload of Hollywood implausibilities whose excesses cripple believability. Inspired by terribly real events, "Rangoon" is unable to consistently re-create a persuasive reality on screen.

Part of the problem lies with the heroine, Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), a young American doctor who is visiting Burma with her sister Andy (Frances McDormand) in 1988. Still in mourning for her husband and their child, murdered by an intruder, she looks on the country's stone monuments only to feel "I was stone myself." Obviously, she is ready for something completely different and that is what she gets.

Hearing a commotion outside her Rangoon hotel room, Laura sneaks out to investigate and stumbles upon a massive political demonstration for the real-life Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Adelle Lutz), the leader of the country's democracy movement. With strength of personality alone, Aung San Suu Kyi personally defuses a potential massacre by armed soldiers. Understandably, Laura is impressed.

Back at her hotel, in the next of numerous contrivances in Alex Lasker & Bill Rubenstein's script, Laura discovers that her passport has been stolen, which means she'll have to stay in the country for a day after her group leaves. "Don't do anything dumb," are her sister's parting words. She must have had a peek at the script.

Killing time in a local market, Laura meets a kindly elderly guide named U Aung Ko (played by an actor of the same name). Though tourists are not allowed outside Rangoon, on a whim she decides to accompany him on a visit to an outlying monastery. Then their car breaks down and they are forced to stay the night with some of U Aung Ko's young friends, who tell her that he is a former university professor who lost his job and was imprisoned for opposing the regime.

Like a thirsty sponge, audience surrogate Laura soaks up all kinds of information about the country's political situation.

The next day, everything comes to a convenient boil. The army opens fire on civilians in Rangoon, martial law is declared, the airport closed, and tourist Laura finds herself having to transport a seriously wounded U Aung Ko to a conveniently distant hospital.

This Saturday matinee part of "Beyond Rangoon," rife with unlikely situations and overdone peril, including the threat of rape, is the film's weakest link. Not helping things is Arquette, apparently cast after Michelle Pfeiffer pulled out. Though the actress is awfully game, crawling through mud and hacking through jungle, her Laura comes off as strident and devoid of sense, a difficult character to feel anything for once the impossibilities of the plot are thrown into the mix.

As mentioned, "Rangoon's" surface (the film was shot in Malaysia) is beautiful, and Boorman is especially adept at staging large-scale scenes of political confrontation. But even though the rush of current events (the real Aung San Suu Kyi was recently freed after years of military house arrest) has given this film an added relevance, it's still not as persuasive as its reality deserves.

* MPAA rating: R, for depiction of violent political oppression. Times guidelines: a scene of attempted rape, scenes of violence and jeopardy.


'Beyond Rangoon'

Patricia Arquette: Laura Bowman

U Aung Ko: U Aung Ko

Frances McDormand: Andy

Spalding Gray: Jeremy Watt

Adelle Lutz: Aung San Suu Kyi

A Pleskow/Spikings production, released by Castle Rock Entertainment. Director John Boorman. Producers Barry Spikings, Eric Pleskow, John Boorman. Executive Producer Sean Ryerson. Screenplay Alex Lasker & Bill Rubenstein. Cinematographer John Seale. Editor Ron Davis. Costumes Deborah La Gorce Kramer. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Anthony Pratt. Art director Errol Kelly. Set decorator Eddie Fowlie. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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