Yeoh's challenge in playing 'hero' Suu Kyi

Michelle Yeoh in The Lady Luc Besson wanted his film to have an 'epic sweep'

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The Burmese pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi became famous around the world when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. But even after her release last year from years of house arrest in Burma she remains enigmatic. Luc Besson's new film The Lady focuses both on the politics and on her 27 years of marriage.

When in November 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was finally allowed her liberty by Burma's military rulers the news was greeted with delight and astonishment by the team filming The Lady in neighbouring Thailand.

"The cast downed tools and celebrated through the night to toast her freedom," says the screenwriter Rebecca Frayn. "Fact and fiction fused in the most extraordinary way."

By then Frayn had already been working on her idea for three years. She'd initially written what she calls a "small and pretty intimate" script focusing on the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and her British husband Michael Aris, who died of cancer in 1999.

Start Quote

She had been a hero to me for so long, both because she's an Asian and as a woman... I never thought I'd get to talk to the real person”

End Quote Michelle Yeoh on Aung San Suu Kyi

But when Luc Besson came on board as director he wanted more of the political background so the material shot in Thailand included huge crowd-scenes and gave the military more prominence. "Luc wanted an epic sweep, almost like an old-style David Lean film," says Frayn.

No major script changes were contemplated after Aung San Suu Kyi's release but the question arose of who should go to Burma finally to meet the woman whose extraordinary life had inspired the script.

In the end the Burmese authorities allowed only one visa - for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh, who convincingly takes the central role.

"She had been a hero to me for so long," says Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia. "Both because she's an Asian and as a woman. When I heard about Rebecca's script I really campaigned to get the part. But I never thought I'd get to talk to the real person.

"When I met her in Burma my performance was mainly in the can. It wasn't a time for lots of research and we hardly spoke about the film. But her younger son Kim was in Rangoon too so I saw that very close family dynamic."

The Lady concentrates on the years 1988 to 1999 and, as Frayn always planned, on the effect on her family of Suu Kyi's increasing role in politics.

'Devout Buddhist'

Frayn says one of the challenges was to give audiences the information they need to understand the political background, without creating a dry history lesson.

Aung San Suu Kyi's father Aung San, assassinated when she was two, is often seen as the chief architect of Burmese independence from British rule.

Michelle Yeoh in The Lady Michelle Yeoh focused hard on the source of Suu Kyi's inner strength

His daughter studied in India, the US and Britain. In 1972 she married the British academic Dr Michael Aris: they had two sons, Alexander and Kim, and for 16 years she lived something like a normal life in Oxford.

In 1988 she returned to her homeland to take care of her ailing mother. Increasingly drawn into politics, she was first placed under house arrest in 1989 and spent 15 of the next 21 years deprived of her liberty.

Suu Kyi didn't see her husband for the last four years of his life and there were also periods of years when she did not see their sons. She had been sure that if she left Burma the government would never let her back in. The huge pressures created within the family form the film's backbone.

Yeoh has thought hard about where Suu Kyi's resolve comes from. "I think being a devout Buddhist is one important influence. And she's spoken about the importance to her of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence.

"I think the key person in her life was the mother: She instilled great values of duty to her country. I tried to remember all that in preparing the role. You have to feed your soul the way she fed hers.

"It had been difficult for her to marry a foreigner. The regime in Burma used that against her - always saying she knew nothing about her own country.

"But I think Michael Aris always understood her sense of duty and when she left Oxford it wasn't just a single person's decision."

Twin bond

Frayn admits the huge personal strength of Suu Kyi was itself a problem when she began her script.

"It's more straightforward to make a sinner compelling than a saint. Where are the vulnerability and the human foibles?"

Michelle Yeoh in The Lady Michelle Yeoh hopes the film will bring better understanding of the issues in Burma

The Aris family was initially unconvinced about the project, says Frayn. "A big breakthrough was when I realised that Michael Aris has a surviving identical twin, Anthony (both played in the movie by David Thewlis).

"I emailed Anthony and when he discovered I'm the mother of identical twins he thought I might understand their relationship. Then when I actually met Anthony the whole thing started to come together for me imaginatively."

Now Frayn and Yeoh can only sit back and see if audiences take to this engrossing personal story against the background of a troubled nation far away.

"Burma can be a hard place to understand," says Yeoh. "But I think a little of the opaqueness is going, slowly. Even in the last few weeks we see signs of reform. Without transparency there's no democracy and that's what we hope for. The people deserve it."

And has Aung San Suu Kyi seen the movie?

"Not yet," says Yeoh. "I know she would say, 'Oh why would anyone watch a film about me?' But we didn't make it for her. We made it for the rest of the world so they'll understand and maybe want to do something to help people in Burma."

The Lady opens across the UK on 30 December.

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