The American woman, Laura Bowman, is a doctor, taken on a tour of the Orient by her sister Andy (Frances McDormand). In the opening sequences, which are beautiful and elaborate and give us some reason to hope for a decent movie, we see Laura on a quiet boat with tourists, her voice-over explaining that she has come to the mysterious East seeking peace. As she follows the tourists up the banks toward a reclining Buddha, a trek with bad jokes from tour guide Jeremy Watt (Spalding Gray) all the way, a local boy who's been playing on the Buddha falls and begins to bleed. That triggers a flashback to the moment that shattered Laura's life.
The flashback scenes are shot from above, giving Laura's house back home the look of a doll house with the roof off. The perfect domestic setting has shocking gore -- sometime before her trip east, we learn, Laura came home to find her husband and young son, as the cliche goes, brutally murdered.
That major tragedy gets the central character to Rangoon; a minor tragedy sets the plot in motion. Laura's passport is stolen, the tour moves on with her to catch up in a day or so when the good ol' American embassy has prepared her papers. The embassy folk tell her to stay inside her hotel, so of course she goes strolling stupidly through the marketplace. There she meets her guide, U Aung Ko (played by a Burmese expatriate named ... U Aung Ko). He charms her with a gooey story about a bird who only knows the cage and offers to take her on a tour, reminding her in his wisdom that they'll need cash to get through military checkpoints.
They are soon heading for the borders, however, because while they were communing with nature and dissident students, the airports have been shut down and martial law declared. Laura learns a teeny bit about the troubles in Burma, and in the meantime causes trouble for the sweet, polite people who try to tell their story and help her. She jumps off of perfectly safe trains, drives blindly into forests, attracts the attention of soldiers and looses all her papers and cash.
It's a sad story, and the saddest element is the misuse of Patricia Arquette. In the early scenes, the actress is painfully distant, completely emotionally shut down, as she explains the why of her trip, then a savage vision of feral agony keening over her dead son. There also are a couple of good moments between Arquette and McDormand -- the sisters politely listing to each other's helpful lies -- but for most of the movie poor Arquette is wrapped in a wet sarong and sent running though the jungles to all but ruin the lives of too-noble Burmese.
She also makes life risky for some Karen people. The Karen people are a border group, and mentioning them specifically is one of Boorman's feints at accuracy. It's a nice touch, but wouldn't it be nice if Boorman's movie pointed out, specifically, who the bad guys are.
Hardly matters: Beyond Rangoon is about warm yellow tones as much as it's about anything. While Boorman indulges in blue-green saturations for nighttime scenes, and some of the jungle settings are bright with leafy colors, the main of Laura and U Aung Ko's adventures kick up yellow dust, or have them traveling on the slow, wide Irrawaddy river -- its center currents golden in the sun and a muddy ocher along its banks. Skimming over politics, and delving into complex lighting schemes, Boorman uses a spectacular technique for the scenery as seen through car windows. As Laura and U Aung Ko drive through the jungle, the woods along the road are shown in a grainy, faded-to-orange quality that looks exactly like an old 16mm elementary school film. This weird visual is a fascinating, albeit useless aside, and not the only one.
To be completely fair, these pretty pictures, and poor Patricia Arquette running her slightly awkward big-girl run around in a wet sarong, are not the only elements of Beyond Rangoon. Early on, in what is presumably meant to be the first raising of Laura's consciousness, the unhappy American doctor sees Aung San Suu Kyi (David Byrne wife and Beetlejuice bit player Adelle Lutz) pass through a line of soldiers, a stoic smile her only weapon. Boy howdy, what a tense scene -- unless the audience remembers that Boorman has identified the setting as Burma, 1988, and that the real-life San Suu Kyi was still alive in 1991 to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What gives? Either Boorman is convinced that San Suu Kyi's true story is powerful, and honors her courage in this scene, or he's hoping to trade on American ignorance. Either way, he not only exploits San Suu Kyi for PC points, but also gives her short shrift.
If Boorman's aim was to make a socially relevant film, to tell the world about Burma's troubles, then why all the bother with the doctor and her sugary guru? Why not just a biography of San Suu Kyi?
He might have begun, not with a depressed American on a package tour, but with San Suu Kyi's early days, showing the future revolutionary being dandled in her daddy's knee -- her daddy was U Aung San, a key figure in the Burmese independence movement, who surely had a few instructive tales for his little daughter. San Suu Kyi's formative and early years, her schooling and young womanhood in the West, could make a stylish and compelling story. As an end tag explains, San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989, yet while separated from her husband and sons she continued to write and continued to speak for democracy. If Boorman wanted to make an action movie with a female star, why drag in a pretty American actress for a pretty American role? Because he's cheap and shallow, I think.
Beyond Rangoon has a wonderful premise -- to introduce Burma through the experiences of a lost traveler -- and some stunning cinematography. As with a real trip along a river delta, the scenery is beautiful, even as you slog through muck.
Directed by John Boorman. With Patricia Arquette, U Aung Ko and Spalding Gray.