Myanmar democracy leader's struggle debuts on film

TORONTO - Myanmar's revered pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now also a movie protagonist after Luc Besson's "The Lady" premiered on Monday at the Toronto film festival.

The French director crafted a tender story of love and family tragedy, reaching beyond the political struggle by using private files obtained through sources close to Suu Kyi, her late British husband, and their two sons.

Suu Kyi returned to the country formerly known as Burma from Oxford in 1988 due to her mother's worsening health, launching a life in the political spotlight followed by the darkness of house arrest ordered by a military junta.

She would not see her husband Michael Aris again, as the junta refused to grant him an entry visa and she knew that if she left Myanmar she would never be allowed back. Aris eventually died of prostate cancer in 1999.

"No matter what, Aung San Suu Kyi is immortal," said Besson, of the opposition icon who was released by the junta in November 2010 after seven straight years of house arrest.

"There are thousands and thousands of people who give their life for their country and for democracy.

"And you don't ask yourself, 'Is it going to work? Are we going to win the war? Are we going to win democracy? You just fight," Besson added.

The daughter of a revolutionary general assassinated when she was only two years old and still revered by the population for leading Myanmar's fight for independence, Suu Kyi was called upon to lead the nation out from under the shadow of military dictatorship.

"The Lady," as she is affectionately known, picks up her story upon the return to Myanmar, chronicling her non-violent fight for democracy as protests erupted against the ruling generals only to be brutally crushed.

She delivered speeches to hundreds of thousands at Yangon's glittering Shwedagon Pagoda and took on a leading role in the opposition movement as head of the National League for Democracy.

Her popularity culminated in a 1990 election victory for the party, but the NLD were never allowed to take power and Suu Kyi has spent most of the past two decades under house arrest.

"I lived and breathed her every day for the last four years," said Michelle Yeoh, who embodies Suu Kyi's tranquil defiance in the film.

The Malaysian actress read the books she read and studied her heroes, including India's Mohandas Gandhi.

She also set out to learn to speak the language without a foreign accent, which was challenging because "there's no pause in the language, it's like a song, a melody that just goes on."

"When (Suu Kyi) went back to Burma, that was actually one of her biggest fears, that her Burmese sounded a little foreign because she'd spent 16 years abroad. So a little bit of an accent would probably have been okay (for me)."

During filming, Yeoh spent two days with Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon.

"She held out her arms and gave me the biggest hug," said Yeoh. "She's very slender but not for a moment do you feel that this is a very fragile woman on the verge of collapse. There was great strength."

Yeoh described her as disarming, with a great sense of humor, and "she moved very quickly. She had this amazing energy. I thought she would be very Zen, that she would float across the room. You could feel her energy."

"We never spoke about the film because in no way did we want to put her in danger," Yeoh added.

Screenwriter Rebecca Frayn said it took years to secure the trust of Suu Kyi's confidants and gain material for the script.

"Her husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis) had worked very discretely in support of his wife, so it was very difficult to get insight into what he'd actually done on her behalf," she said.

And because of the delicate situation in Myanmar, many people who helped to make the film asked not to be credited, fearing repercussions.

Besson shot the movie in Thailand near its border with Myanmar, as well as secretly in Myanmar itself, and used footage shot by pro-democracy activists.

He recalled shooting a scene recreating Suu Kyi's speech at Shwedagon, the rally in which she is most commonly depicted, with 15 members of the NLD movement in their 60s on stage with Yeoh.

"Three of four of them were crying," he said, because 20 years earlier they had been in the crowd watching Suu Kyi herself give the speech and said to him, "I'm very touched to be next to her today.

"That question, is it worth it to fight for something? I think it's worth it," he said.