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Beyond Rangoon (r)
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Subject: "Beyond Rangoon" Please forward to everyone u know on net
A Motion Picture of Epic Proportions
By U Kyaw Win
"The only thing necessary for the triumph
of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Edmund Burke, British Statesman
"Dr. Win, we are making a film about Burma. We would like to talk
to you. When can we meet?"
Never in the wildest of dreams did I ever entertain the thought of
doing anything Hollywood. Coming on a slow afternoon in my office at
Orange Coast College, the voice on the other end sounded suspiciously like
a prank from a classmate of pubescence long ago.
"Sure," I responded. "Anytime! And where are you?" asked I. "In
Beverly Hills. I am the executive producer," the caller shot back,
sounding somewhat irritated at my reckless demeanor.
"Beverly Hills is out of my driving range," I said. "Besides, I
dread driving the freeways and shy away from L.A. as much as I can," I
continued, certain that the prankster had been soundly ensnared.
"Alright, we will come to you," the caller said, probably
believing he had a comic on his hands. "I will call back in a few days to
arrange a mutually agreeable time," said he, and there ended the
When an uncertain situation confronts me, I usually turn to my
wife Riri, for counsel. I immediately telephoned her and said, "I got a
strange call from someone who claims to be a Hollywood film producer," all
the while thinking the culprit to be a classmate from my Woodstock School
days in India.
"Why don't you just let it slide and relax? Everything will fall
in place. If it pans out, this will be a good opportunity to tell the
truth about what is going on in Burma," was her wise counsel.
And so, on a sunny day in August 1993, John Boorman, his executive
producer and an aide came to our Laguna Hills home in California's Orange
We talked at length about Burma. John Boorman asked many
questions. He was most interested in the religious, cultural and
anthropological aspects of Burmese life. And, of course, we discussed the
political situation, specifically the military era. When I talked about
Burma in the context of China and India and my familiarity with the
latter, his interest was heightened, for his father had served in Colonial
Conversations continued after lunch which consisted of Indonesian
and Burmese dishes carefully prepared by Riri. She made sure that the
spices embellished the dishes just enough to whet the palate. By now Riri
and I had warmed up to a chance to be part of a large endeavor that would
tell the world about Burma.
After lunch I showed John Boorman and his aides into my study.
They were fascinated by the literary and art collections found in our
home, even borrowing some books to take back with them.
It was a stimulating afternoon spent with an artistic giant, even
if it took on the air of an inquisition. But I was thoroughly up to the
mark. Not being a moviegoer, film directors were of no moment to me. I
must confess that I knew nothing about John Boorman. But I learned
quickly. A librarian at Orange Coast College dug up reams of information
on the famous British filmmaker. John Boorman's intense commitment to
just causes, as revealed in his biography, struck a sensitive chord in me.
Upon parting, the executive producer turned and said, "I'll call
you next week."
Well, "next week" came sooner than that. John Boorman had found
the man he was looking for. "Would you be willing to join the film crew
as special advisor on location in Malaysia?"
Wow! What a lightning jolt! Me, on a film crew? This was too
good. I had never been on a movie set--not even visited Universal
Studios, a Southern California attraction frequented by people from all
over the world.
This once-in-a-lifetime diversion from academia involved being
away from the campus for a semester. I consulted my colleagues in the
various disciplines, including those in the film department. I talked to
my dean and the college president. "Would it be possible for me to take a
semester's leave of absence?" The resounding answer amounted to: "You'd
be a fool if you didn't go." Did I ever think myself being
So on a hot and muggy, yes hot and muggy, afternoon even if it was
15 December 1993, I arrived in Penang. The next morning I bumped into
John Boorman in the elevator. Coming from Ireland, he had checked into
majestic Equatorial Hotel a few hours after I had done the day before. We
had breakfast together and went over my duties.
I immediately went to work advising the art, production design,
drafting, costume, wardrobe, props, and casting departments. The work was
most fascinating. Here I was, doing something for which I had absolutely
no training but knowing exactly what needed to be done.
I supervised the painting of hundreds of signs used as props in
the movie. The artists came from Sri Lanka and none of them knew Burmese,
but they did a marvelous job reproducing the curly cues of written
Burmese. In the process, I learned a useful Singhalese word,
"ah-ing-karang," which means "take if down or erase it" (to start over
again). One particular sign which was sub-contracted out, escaped my
inspection for it showed up on the set just prior to shooting. Attempts
to remedy an error failed. To my distress, it slipped into the film even
though seen only for brief seconds.
During the early pre-production phase, film location sites had to
be reconnoitered. I went along with the director, first assistant
director (Mark Egerton), production designer (Anthony Pratt) executive
producer (Sean Ryerson), director of photography (John Seale), props
master (Eddie Fowlie), and production supervisor (Chandran Ratnam) on
these forays. We flew in an eight-seater aircraft to Ipoh to scout jungle
locations in and around the royal city of Kuala Kangsar on the Perak
I was also despatched to Thailand to obtain props and Karen
costumes from the Thai-Burmese border. Attempts to recruit Buddhist monks
and Karen villagers as extras only partially succeeded due to their
failure to obtain travel documents.
I spent many hours with Tony Pratt, the production designer, who
sketched every set before they were built. Once built, we checked them
thoroughly, correcting or embellishing for authenticity.
In addition to the principal actors and actresses, the cast
consisted of some 2,600 Malay extras. They had to be fitted and made up
to look as authentically Burmese as possible. The casting department
recruited them from the kampongs (villages) and schools in and around
Penang and Ipoh. It was my task to rule on whether particular faces
resembled Burmese ones. I coached some Burmese lines to frontliners who
had difficulty with the tonal language on short call.
The crew ran into difficulty obtaining Malays who would have to
shave their heads and don yellow robes to act as Buddhist monks.
Eventually Thais from across the border had to be imported. Someone in
casting had the brilliant notion that I had the face of a Buddhist monk.
So, I got drafted for a small part for which Director John Boorman
afterwards confided that my acting was "convincing." My only line as an
agitated monk, however, did not survive the editor's cut.
Ten trucks loaded with equipment, generators, grips, water, food,
wardrobe, etc. had to be driven to each location and returned to the
staging areas after each shoot. There were some 100 crew present at each
shoot. Everyone had an assigned task. They worked in tight teamwork,
A scaled-down replica of Rangoon's Sule Pagoda was built on a bus
parking lot at Penang jetty. Made of fiberglass and painted gold, it was
supported by steel frame. It looked so real that Burmese friends shown
photographs of me standing before it asked, "How did you get a visa to
Burma?" It was a magnificent structure which took three months in the
making. But I was saddened to see it torn down after the filming.
A monstrous reclining Buddha was literally built into the foliage
along the Perak River near Kuala Kangsar. From the tip of the nose to the
top of its forehead it measured 26 feet. I was the monk in that scene
when the tour party ooohed and aaahed at its serene immensity while
Professor Jeremy Watt (Spalding Gray), their leader, tried to "impart"
some Buddhist philosophy about the soul. The sculptor, Mansell
Rivers-Bland, did a superb job with this and dozens of other sculptures
appearing in the film.
Altogether four villages were carved out of the jungle and one
existing village was used in the filming. One bridge which spanned the
Perak River and another suspension bridge across a ravine were built. All
except the existing village were destroyed once the shooting was over.
The preparation, and expense, that went into construction of sets and
props that only appear for fleeting moments in the film is simply
"Beyond Rangoon" is the story of a young American physician, Dr.
Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), whose husband and young son were
murdered in a home robbery. To pick up the pieces of what remained of her
life, she takes a trip with her elder sister Andy, also a physician,
played by Frances McDormand. When the tour group departed Burma, Laura
was left behind to obtain a new passport to replace the once that had been
liberated from her.
On the way out of Rangoon's American Embassy she encounters Aung
Ko, a tour guide portrayed by U Aung Ko of Paris. The tour guide, a
one-time physics professor who was imprisoned and who later lost his job
for aiding some students who were being hounded by the military regime for
participating in an earlier anti-government protest, promises to show
Laura the sights beyond Rangoon. This was during the massive
pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988 when the country was briefly closed
to international air traffic.
During a solo outing one evening, Laura sets her eyes on Aung San
Suu Kyi (Adelle Lutz) who was wending her way through a tumultuous crowd
to address a rally. Suddenly, troops move in to obstruct her path.
Weapons at the ready, their commander orders her to halt. She turns to
her aide who tries to restrain her and motions the escorting party to
remain back. She moves slowly towards the soldiers, who, seeing this
beautiful frail woman, tremble. They disobey their commander; they do not
shoot. She ascends the podium amidst deafening applause.
I portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi's aide, dressed in formal attire.
Wearing the silk longyi that once belonged to my father U On Kin, it was
my special way of honoring his memory. That particular scene was shot on
two consecutive muggy March nights. My heart was so burdened when
shooting and re-shooting the scene that I had to turn from the set several
times to regain my composure back into the role.
Laura is moved by Aung San Suu Kyi's strength and beauty. The
rest of the story is a suspenseful one. In the end Laura is helped out of
Burma through the jungles to Thailand. Her life is resurrected after
witnessing Aung San Suu Kyi's courage; she is inspired by the Buddhism
that has permeated Burmese life; and by her guide Aung Ko's own
The movie's most memorable line is uttered by Aung Ko when he
pacifies young students who are pummeling a Burmese soldier. "If we do to
them what they have done to us, we will become what they have become," he
admonishes the young. It is a tenet that begs embrace.
Shooting began in Penang on 12 February and ended on the Perak
River near Kuala Kangsar on 25 May 1994. The work was tedious, hard--
long hours in humid heat. The tropical weather got hotter and wetter as
the weeks progressed. It was hard on Riri to remain home alone in
California for this long a stretch. She did visit me on location twice
while our son Zali, and daughter Dewi Sita, each did so once.
In addition to Burma and Malaysia, the cast and crew came from
Ireland, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South
Africa, Canada, and the United States. Without exception, they became
deeply interested in Burma and identified themselves with its plight.
They acquainted themselves with Burma's trauma and some even visited the
country before shooting began.
When it was all over, I went to Perth, Australia and waited for
Riri, who flew in from America. Working on a story that has burdened my
heart left me drained. Separation from her husband also took a toll on
Riri. It was now time to unwind. We feasted on Australia's pristine
beauty visiting long-separated friends while making new ones as we went
For well nigh three decades, I have been an outspoken critic of
the military tyranny in Burma. But all the pieces I have written, the
words uttered and the protest demonstrations I have participated in seem
to have been minuscule compared to what was accomplished as a team member
that made "Beyond Rangoon."
After being warmly received at the Cannes International Film
Festival in May, "Beyond Rangoon" will be released world-wide by Columbia
Pictures on 25 August 1995.
When future generations of Burmese reflect on the past, it is my
earnest hope that they will smile on the effort of those who recreated on
film the trauma that visited their land under the military boot. And, if
"we in it shall be remembered," it would have been worth our while. I
rejoice in being invited to participate in this monumental task. It was a
Give "Beyond Rangoon" a rousing ovation. It is dedicated to Aung
San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate for Peace of 1991, a truly courageous person,
an inspiration. When the tears dry, speak out against the tyranny in
To Riri and our children Zali and Dewi Sita, whose support
sustained me, I am ever grateful.
John Boorman, I thank you, Sir.
IN MEMORY OF 8-8-88.