Another of John Boorman’s ambitious, highly physical explorations of a remote foreign culture, “Beyond Rangoon” goes only part of the way in elucidating its topical subject matter and its tormented leading lady. Engaging on the basis of its unusual Burmese setting and the extreme jeopardy of its protagonists, film ultimately falls short due to its conventional Westerner-caught-in-an-exotic-land format, insufficient analysis of a little-known political situation and one-dimensional characterizations. Without strong reviews, this Castle Rock production looms as a commercial also-ran, although foreign chances look somewhat better than U.S. prospects.
A visit to another world, akin to several other Boorman pictures, physically handsome effort was planned with Meg Ryan as its star. In the end, Patricia Arquette took on the role of Laura Bowman, an American doctor trying to escape the devastating memories of the murder of her husband and young son by getting literally as far away from the U.S. as possible.
With her sister Andy (Frances McDormand), Laura is in Burma in 1988 when the peaceful protests against the military government begin to reach a crescendo. One night after curfew, Laura is moved when she witnesses pacifist leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest) bravely defy the massed troops by moving through them to address the crowd. Soon , however, the army violently cracks down on the demonstrators, killing scores of them in actions that for the most part went unreported in the West at the time.
In the first of numerous melodramatic contrivances in Alex Lasker and Bill Rubenstein’s screenplay, Laura manages to lose her passport and is left behind when her sister and the rest of her touring party beat a hasty retreat from the country. Seeking a safe haven away from the capital, she escapes with ostensible guide U Aung Ko, a former professor and political dissident who eludes martial law in taking Laura to a rural monastery populated by idealistic students.
Ever-encroaching pressure from the repressive regime sets Laura and U Aung Ko on the run once again, turning the film into a chase in which the imperiled duo barely manage to stay one step ahead of the trigger-happy soldiers.
When the professor is injured, Laura is forced to take charge, hitching a ride on a large bamboo river raft, killing a man who’s preparing to rape her and ultimately getting them back to Rangoon, where they come under fire during a horrendous massacre.
In the well-staged climax, Laura, U Aung Ko and their colleagues are forced, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” fashion, to dodge bullets as they make mad dashes across a river to an exile compound in Thailand.
The momentary excitement of the large-scale action sequences notwithstanding, the film never goes more than halfway in satisfying on all its levels of concentration — as psychological exploration of Laura’s inner journey, as expose of a little-dramatized political situation and as pure adventure tale. Even though the par-ticulars of Burmese history and politics are never explained in detail, the weight of the totalitarian tyranny depicted makes the rather reckless behavior of a stray American seem borderline silly and irrelevant.
Once again, the peril of a Yank on the loose in exotic territory is made to seem of rather more urgent concern than the fate of any number of anonymous Third Worlders. Unlike “The Killing Fields,” the recent film “Beyond Rangoon” most closely resembles, this one features an American who is in Asia for essentially arbitrary rather than professional reasons, one who naively and annoyingly reacts to military strong-arm tactics with protestations like, “They can’t do that!”
Matters aren’t helped by the casting and central performance of Arquette, who simply doesn’t have the presence and command to carry such a big picture, as the part requires her to do. Not the least bit convincing as a doctor, she mostly registers varying degrees of frantic desperation in reaction to the chaotic events around her and never develops the dimensions of intellectual and emotional growth that would have brought Laura to full life.
Nonpro U Aung Ko, himself an exile from Burma for 20 years, acquits himself honorably as Laura’s knowing, good-humored companion. Other perfs are strictly surface.
Where the film excels is in its physical re-creation of the virtually unknown history of a relatively unfamiliar land. Substituting Malaysian locations for off-limits Burma, Boorman has staged some convincing set pieces of savage violence against defenseless citizens, as well as some muscular action in river and thick jungle settings. The accomplishment of these sequences, however, goes well beyond the level of the script or characterizations.
Particular kudos are due production designer Anthony Pratt for his evocation of a very foreign milieu. The docu background of lenser John Seale is used to vivid advantage in bringing an immediacy to the proceedings, although some of the visual backgrounds are bleached out at times.
One can only salute Boorman’s desire to bring the sorry recent history of Burma (now Myanmar) to the world’s attention, but he didn’t find the most effective way of dramatizing it.