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Wonder Woman

Patricia Arquette escapes through Burma in 'Beyond Rangoon'

By Richard Von Busack

John Boorman's great new thriller, Beyond Rangoon, concerns the physical and spiritual journey of Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette), who has suffered a terrible loss: the murder of her husband and child during the course of a burglary. This senseless killing cost her everything. She was a doctor; she has now been left, as we find out later, pathetically unable to stand the sight of blood.

On a vacation tour of Southeast Asia with her sister, the numb-with-grief Laura witnesses a rally on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi (Adele Lutz), the political activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her principled defiance of the government of Burma.

The next day, Laura wanders off on an illegal journey into the Burmese hinterlands with a professor-turned-guide named U Aung Ko (played by an actor of the same name), who takes Laura to meet his former students, who are opponents of the ruling regime. When the government strikes against the protestors in a series of massacres, Bowman and her new friend, wounded and feverish, have to run to Thailand, pursued by the Burmese army.

In Beyond Rangoon, the back-story is as interesting as the front story. We aren't teased with Laura's trauma. Instead, we are shown the cause of it: first, in a few wrenching images; later, in distant but cruel dream sequences. Laura is, you sense, justly flattened with pain. Thus, it is rousing when she rises up to save her own spirit. She's a hero who grows with the viewer's admiration, as she overcomes peril after peril. At first withdrawn, Laura changes physically along the way, getting tougher, bigger-boned, bigger-chested. Women are going to love this movie.

Boorman web links (This one's in French)

Free Burma

Burmese politics

Burma/Myanmar travel

soc.culture.burma (Usenet newsgroup)

Sometimes, cinema is built on the use of sound, of dialogue, of the swell of exactly the right music on the soundtrack. Other times, greatness is found in silence, in the careful layering of image upon image, which draws us through the world the director has created. I think it's the latter, in its simplicity, that's closer to what is meant by the magic of cinema. Long passages of Beyond Rangoon are without dialogue, as in Boorman's Hell in the Pacific (1968), an almost silent movie in its own right. Beyond Rangoon has this kind of purity, the sort of thing you see in revivals of films made when movies were young.

And Beyond Rangoon is so well crafted that the adventure never stops. When Laura and her guide flee the police through a canebreak in an ancient Chevy, we see the escape from the passenger's view, through the dusty windshield of the car. Boorman disposes of the customary helicopter and crane shots, thus reviving the long-dead thrill of a car chase, which excites because we can't see enough, even when we most want to.

In another superbly directed sequence, Laura, with time against her, makes a one-woman raid on a village in a town full of soldiers amusing themselves by killing the townsfolk. There is also an amazing guerilla attack on a truck stopped by the army.

Beyond Rangoon has poetry, too, in a drifting ride down the river that ends when Laura awakens, at the sound of a steam horn lowing, to the sight of a ship eclipsing the sun and our first look at daylight after a night-long ordeal. Beyond Rangoon's mood is helped by the low-key, elegant way U Aung Ko sums up Buddhism for Laura: "We are taught that suffering is the one promise life always keeps."

On the Run: Patricia Arquette plays and American woman caught up in Burmese politics in John Boorman's 'Beyond Rangoon'

Boorman has at times been both a lyrical and a ruthless director. He's reconciling the two qualities here. His older movies include the D.H. Lawrence-like craziness of Zardoz (1974), and the coldbloodedness of Point Blank (1967) and Deliverance (1972), the latter with a pop-up ending that's been stolen by a hundred horror movies. Yet Boorman has also been capable of almost French delicacy, with Hope and Glory (1987) and his little-loved but endearing Where the Heart Is (1990).

In Beyond Rangoon, Boorman has made a great pacifist action movie, celebrating not the hero with the biggest ammo but the hero who is brave enough to stare down a gun. From beginning to end, Boorman keeps you on the edge without hurtling you into the abyss. This beautifully drawn movie is the year's brightest and best adventure.

Beyond Rangoon (R; 100 minutes), directed by John Boorman, written by Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein, photographed by John Seale and starring Patricia Arquette and U Aung Ko, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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