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Posts Tagged ‘Asia’

Beyond Rangoon

Saturday, March 27, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only film in our series of journeys Around the World & Into the Past, Beyond Rangoon features Patricia Arquette as American doctor Laura Bowman, who is traveling through Southeast Asia in 1988 when she gets caught up in the Burmese democratic struggle led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Far from a vacation, the voyage is designed to help Bowman forget about the brutal murders of her husband and son, and Arquette plays Bowman as a blank, a woman with no affect and little connection to the world around her. As she tours the temples of Rangoon with her sister, she feels as dead as the great stone statutes of Buddha, and rather than soothing her grief, the exotic sights and sounds merely concentrate it.

One night, Bowman awakes to a racket of chants outside her window, and she steals out of her hotel room and into the streets, where she encounters a student protest against the repressive Burmese military dictatorship. She joins the protest, half in a dream, and witnesses Aung San Suu Kyi—the petite woman who would eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma—as Suu Kyi stares down the guns of the Burmese military, sweeps them aside seemingly with the force of her will, and speaks to the masses of students gathered to hear her.

Bowman finds something to cling to in this rally, and she returns to her hotel room energized. Unfortunately, she has broken curfew, and the police are waiting for her when she returns; though they decide to allow Bowman to continue with her tour group to Thailand the next day, she discovers that she has lost her passport at the rally and is forced to stay behind while the American embassy issues replacement documents. Her sister travels ahead to Bangkok with her tour group, and Bowman is left to fend for herself as the Burmese government declares martial law and violently squelches the student uprising.

Left on her own for a day in Rangoon, with explicit instructions not to leave the embassy, Arquette’s character decides not only to go into the streets but to leave the city limits, which is strictly forbidden to foreigners. From there, the adventure really begins: grief-stricken and with nothing to lose, Arquette takes every dangerous opportunity that comes her way, and she eventually ends up among a group of student revolutionaries in hiding from the military. Now she has no papers, no way back into the city of Rangoon, and no clear idea what to do next, other than swim with the current of fate.

Partly a primer in Burmese politics, partly a taut thriller with an unlikely heroine, Beyond Rangoon grounds its tale in the struggle of Patricia Arquette’s character to feel anything at all after the loss of her loved ones, drawing frequent parallels between her personal tragedy and the sufferings of the Burmese protestors. At times heavy-handed and simple, the film’s politics can hit you like a sledgehammer, but the winning, warm performance of U Aung Ko—the central force in the movie’s little coalition of rebels—humanizes these politics, which, after all, champion democracy in the face of violent oppression.

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Arquette’s blank affect often acts as a cipher that allows each audience member to react individually to the action, and her transformation at the end of the film is convincing; but there are also many times during the course of the narrative when her blankness alienates the viewer, giving her dialogue a hollow, perfunctory ring. At these times, the extraordinary Malaysian locations and director John Boorman’s deft handling of both small interiors and massive crowds save the film from wallowing in its own pathos—Boorman knows when to ratchet up the thrills and when to linger on a poignant sunset.

Beyond Rangoon exemplifies the Euro-American tourist at the end of the colonial era, stumbling blithely into political turmoil partially of our own creation; and the film offers yet another example of complex local politics simplified through white Western eyes; but Beyond Rangoon also shows us the benefits of reaching out across borders, and it becomes a rare cinematic vehicle: a political thriller that thinks friendship is a transformative force.

You can find it on DVD or YouTube.

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A World Unto Itself: Riding the Iron Rooster through China

Friday, March 26, 2010 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster begins like the first book in our Around the World and Into the Past series, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, with a long train journey to the author’s eventual destination. In Greene’s case, the journey began in Austin, Texas, and wound circuitously down to Chiapas; in Theroux’s case, his year-long journey around the interior of China in 1988 starts in London. Vowing not to fly on his journey, in order to understand the true distance and foreignness of China, Theroux takes rail jaunts across France and Central Europe to the Trans-Siberian Express to the Trans-Mongolian, eventually finding his way to the Shanxi Province of Northern China. There, he begins twelve months of vagabonding, taking in major cities and rural backwaters, unwittingly at a critical moment in modern Chinese history: just before the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Theroux finds a paradoxical China, ill at ease with its own internal contradictions but nevertheless unified by an Orwellian bureaucracy that rules with an iron fist. Nearly everywhere Theroux goes, authorities force him to play their favorite game, whose name translates roughly as “making up new rules on the spot.” Theroux finds that Mao and his successors have wrapped the country in red tape like a Gang of Christos turning China into a communist art installation; yet, he also sees clear evidence of the liberalizing free market reforms that would eventually turn China into the industrial powerhouse that currently owns 25% of U.S. debt. Theroux writes that “the Chinese are the last people in the world still manufacturing spittoons, chamber pots, treadle sewing machines, bed warmers, quill pens, wooden yokes for oxen, iron plows, sit-up-and-beg bicycles, steam engines and the 1948 Packard car.” A mere twenty years later, though, they would be making cutting edge technological gadgets for export to the West, entering into manufacturing partnerships with European and American companies such as Beijing Benz-DaimlerChrysler.

Everywhere Theroux goes, he finds paradoxes: tiny local free markets operating parallel to the central command economy; local cultures and languages thriving alongside the dominant, homogenizing Mandarin and Cantonese cultures; and a simultaneous veneration and contempt for authority among the everyday people he encounters.

Theroux is a charming guide, by turns gruff, worldly-wise, perplexed, and arrogant, and he’s game to try almost anything but the black carrots in Mongolia. He escorts us around a local bazaar in the Uighur town of Turshan, listens to complaints about the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai’s People’s Park, and ascends to the vast plateau of Tibet, where he sympathizes with the Tibetan independence movement. Along the way, he gives us lessons in Chinese etiquette, agronomy and traditional folk beliefs, and he even reads a smuggled copy of a medieval pornographic novel banned by the government but not, after all, very pornographic by Western standards.

Theroux’s journey itself is interesting, and the author is an engaging storyteller; but what makes Riding the Iron Rooster so interesting today is the snapshot it captures of a remote culture still mired in post-colonial politics, but poised for its starring appearance on the world economic stage.

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