Michelle Yeoh blacklisted by Burma regime

By Simon Stiel

Dictatorships have been tetchy about works of art that feature their countries. The official news agency of North Korea denounced 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day as “insulting to the Korean nation.”

After trying to deceive the international community by holding elections in November last year, Burma’s military regime has attracted international attention again. Actress Michelle Yeoh, who had starred in 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, has been barred from entering Burma and has been placed on the regime’s blacklist. A Burmese official told reporters that: “She did not have the chance to enter Myanmar (Burma). She was deported straight away on the first flight after arriving at Yangon (Rangoon) International Airport.”

Yeoh had visited Burma in December 2010 and had met Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition party the National League for Democracy. Accompanying Yeoh was Suu Kyi’s son, Kim Aris, who had been allowed into the country by the regime to visit his mother.

Yeoh is to portray Suu Kyi in The Lady, which is scheduled to be released in the autumn of this year. Directed by Luc Besson, it is described as an “epic love story” that will focus on Suu Kyi’s relationship with husband Dr Michael Aris, and how their relationship endured during her activism and imprisonment.

Burma Campaign UK has worked with the producers of the film to ensure its accuracy. Its director Mark Farmaner noted the curious nature of the regime’s decision: “It would be interesting to know who she was meeting. After all, she had been granted a visa that was revoked. It’s impossible to film in Burma. A couple of years ago, a German production company filmed a romantic film there, but others like Rambo, have been filmed in Thailand.”

The regime has deported journalists, democracy activists and even UN officials from Burma. It has also banned films. Rambo was banned, as was Stealth even though it only featured Burma for a few seconds. Despite Yeoh’s ban, Farmaner said: “They’ve finished most of the filming.”

Another issue is can Hollywood-made films, with their flaws, really do justice in representing a person like Suu Kyi? Similiar to films made about autism and the Holocaust, it is highly likely to be the only medium through which the public will experience Suu Kyi’s struggle and, as such, risks becoming the story about Suu Kyi.

Such concerns had been articulated over a film about Brazilian F1 champion Ayrton Senna. For years, it was rumoured that Antonio Banderas would play him. Wisely, that approach was rejected and the film that was released this year was “true fiction”, narrated by Senna himself and his colleagues.  Suu Kyi’s life has already been treated on film this year; a Danish made documentary about Suu Kyi was released titled: Lady of No Fear, which focused on Suu Kyi’s family life.

Farmaner is confident Yeoh’s film will have a positive impact: “Hollywood style movies with big names can really help. You’ll have hundreds of thousands of people who will watch a documentary but if you look at examples like Cry Freedom twenty years ago, that transformed awareness about apartheid South Africa and really boosted the international campaign.”

Although lampooned by Trey Parker’s 2004 supermarionation comedy, Team America: World Police, the politically-aware actor or actress supports Farmaner’s argument. Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, hired Bosnian actors and was filmed in Bosnia. Though initially mired in controversy, the film deals with human relationships during the war and is scheduled to be released before Christmas of this year, a time when it is certain to receive a lot of publicity.

The blacklisting of a big name like Yeoh has “created more demand” for the film within Burma itself. It is highly likely that despite the regime’s banning of it, a bootleg copy of the film will be smuggled into Burma. It is to be hoped that The Lady and Yeoh’s blacklisting will draw coverage and concern towards Burma. Besides Suu Kyi, 2000 people are in prison as political prisoners and the regime routinely rapes women.

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