The presented actress Michelle Yeoh the spotlight award for her performance as Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in the film The Lady.
“We give you this award in honor of your great artistry in service to human rights,” Director of Programming Zoe Elton said.
Yeoh, known for her roles in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, at the Oct. 8 for a screening of the new film. She was joined by The Lady’s director, Luc Besson, who informed the audience of some bad news before the movie began.
“There are no subtitles for the Burmese parts of the movie. But I am told that you are a very intelligent audience,” he said.
The film centers on Suu Kyi, the daughter of military leader Aung San who was assassinated by rivals after negotiating for Burma’s independence in 1947. Suu Kyi returns to Burma as an adult to care for her ill mother during a brutal retaliation by the government against student protesters. And she never leaves.
She is eventually put under house arrest due to her advocacy for a general election and peaceful opposition to the oppressive government. Her house arrest, totaling 15 years, places strains on herself and her British husband and children who live in Oxford.
“Outside, she showed strength and dignity and calm,” Yeoh said. “[The movie] lets you have a glimpse of that heart ache.”
For Yeoh, the love story shows how Suu Kyi maintained her strength with her husband’s unconditional support.
“When you love someone, you can enable them to be a better person,” she said, referring to how Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis), never requested her to abandon her efforts and return home.
Besson, who directed and wrote movies like The Fifth Element and The Professional, strived to make the movie as historically accurate as possible. They recreated the house Suu Kyi occupied down to the smallest details, including the piano she played. Yeoh learned to speak Burmese. And of the 200 Burmese who were shown in the movie, most were not actors and many suffered the atrocities depicted in the story.
It was so accurate that “there was this silence from all the Burmese on the set when Michelle appeared as Suu Kyi,” Besson said.
Before the crew finished filming in Thailand, Yeoh met Suu Kyi in her house in Burma. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, but even now her name is not allowed to be mentioned in public. So they refer to her as “The Lady.”
“I felt like I had been there before,” Yeoh remembered as she walked into the activist’s house. Upon her arrival, Suu Kyi gave her a hug, and they talked the rest of the day.
Word got out of the meeting, and when Yeoh tried to return to Burma later on, she was denied a visa.
“Even now, Burma continues to be in the news,” Elton said. “The conversation is far from finished.”
See more coverage of the at Mill Valley Patch. Purchase tickets for screenings at the festival’s website.