Italian director to make film about Burma's Suu Kyi

Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is planning to make his first English-language movie about the Burmese democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tornatore is developing the script for “The Lady” with Japanese producer Naofumi Okamoto, with production to begin later this year.

Okamoto is producing the $30 million project alongside Avi Arad and Steven Paul and Benedict Carver of L.A.-based Crystal Sky Pictures. Crystal Sky is financing the pic.

Okamoto is one of only a handful of foreigners to have met with Suu Kyi since her arrest 17 years ago by Burma’s military junta. He overcame her initial reluctance and secured her permission to develop a movie based on her life.

He asked Tornatore to direct because of the Italian helmer’s empathy with female characters.

Okamoto said, “We want to use the politics as the background to a story about a woman who chose to be the mother to a nation rather than the mother of a family.”

Suu Kyi is the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma and an advocate of nonviolent resistance.

The daughter of the general who negotiated Burmese independence from Britain after WWII, she was educated at Oxford U. and married an English scholar before returning to her homeland in 1988. Her party won elections in 1990, but she was prevented from taking power by the country’s ruling junta.

She has spent much of the past 17 years under house arrest and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991.

When her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, the Burmese government denied him an entry visa to visit his wife. Suu Kyi was told she could leave to see him, but only on condition that she never return. She chose to stay in Burma and never saw her husband again before his death in 1999.

She also remains separated from her two sons, who live in England.

For Arad, best known for movies based on Marvel Comics superheroes such as Spider-Man and X-Men, the project represents something of a departure.

“At first I thought it wasn’t my kind of movie, but then I realized it was. To me, Suu Kyi was like a character from ‘X-Men,’ except she’s a real hero, not an imaginary one — she didn’t need to do what she did, and she gave up a lot to do it.”

Arad is determined that “The Lady” be a movie for the broadest possible audience. “There’s a real commercial opportunity to tell this story. I don’t want to do a biopic like HBO or the BBC would do. We have to find a way of making it bigger than that. It’s a love story and a political thriller. If it’s not commercially successful, we will have missed the mark,” he said.

“The Lady” will span the time from Suu Kyi’s return to Burma in 1988, when she was 43, to the present day. The movie will be in English — the language in which Suu Kyi was educated and which she speaks at home. No cast is yet attached.

The producers will have to negotiate the delicate political sensitivities of Burma’s neighboring countries if they want to shoot in the region with local talent. Although Burma, or Myanmar as it is styled by the ruling junta, is a pariah state, it retains powerful links with China, India and Thailand.

Tornatore, best known outside Italy for his 1988 movie “Cinema Paradiso,” most recently directed “The Unknown Woman,” set for U.S. release in March, and the comedy “Baaria,” which will open in Italy later this year.

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