Michelle Yeoh enters the best actress race as ‘The Lady’

TORONTO – Michelle Yeoh has been to the top of the cinematic mountain.  An icon of Asian cinema, her role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” made her a global star.  And yet, the reception she’s received after playing Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s new biopic “The Lady” is a completely new experience.

At the world premiere of “The Lady” at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival earlier this week, Yeoh was greeted by a large crowd of Burmese supporters of Suu Kyi.  Speaking to Awards Campaign the following morning, Yeoh noted, “They were very eloquent in expressing how happy that we were doing a film about her story which will raise the awareness of their plight.  It was very touching.  They were just so moved that we were doing it.”

Acquired by upstart Cohen MediaGroup for a release this year, “Lady” tells the incredible true story of Suu Kyi, the daughter of a famed Burmese General who spent 15 years of her life under house arrest for trying to bring democracy to her home country.  Directed by Luc Besson, “The Lady” spends half its time depicting Suu Kyi’s lonely existence and the other half following her husband, Oxford professor Michael Aris (David Thewlis), as he wages a futile fight to gain her freedom.  The film was a passion project for Besson who, like many others, was unable to meet Suu Kyi before filming.

“We didn”t speak to her prior to the filming of making of the film because at that time she was still under house arrest.  There was no communication,” Yeoh explains. “I mean, her family hadn”t seen her or spoken to her for the last ten years since the last time she was put under house arrest.  But Luc, through the Embassy, managed to get a message to her that we were going to make the film.  And [screenwriter] Rebecca Frayn had gotten the script and the research with help from close contacts.  So, she was aware, but she was not involved.”

After spending much of her adult life raising a family in England, Suu Kyi returned to her homeland in 1988 and unexpectedly began a vilagant and peaceful battle against Burma’s military controlled government.  Her first house arrest began in 1990.  In the 21 years since she’s spent 15 of it under house arrest and the rest afraid to leave the country for fear she’d not be able to return.  Suu Kyi’s fortitude ranks among many other non-violent heroes of the 20th Century including Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

“It can drive a person crazy if one was not so resilient and able to withstand all of that,” Yeoh says. “Because all she had, really, literally, was her radio which she listened to five or six hours a day so that she knew what was going on in the world.  Otherwise it”s worse than being in a prison.  You know, where you have the basic human”s rights where people can call you at least once a week or come a visit.”

In fact, Suu Kyi was so isolated by the time of her latest release that she had not seen one of her sons for a decade and was absent when her husband passed away after battling cancer in the U.K.  Surprisingly, Yeoh reveals that even after her difficult ordeal, Suu Kyi has a great sense of humor and is “sharp” and “witty.”  In fact, Yeoh was stunned by how upbeat and positive her political allies who spent years in Burmese prisons being tortured for their beliefs.  And yet, when she met Suu Kyi’s “my guys” all they wanted to do was talk about the movie business. They loved movies (and obviously many Yeoh has starred in).   

Eventually, Yeoh had to ask the obvious question recalling, “Finally I said, ‘Aren”t you guys sad and don”t you feel anger?’ And he looked at me and goes, ‘The anger is in the tree.  We tie it up in the tree and then when we want we bring it down and then we make a stand and then we put it back in the tree.’ And that’s their way of dealing with it.  Violence begets violence and that”s what she says.  So, they”ve learned to deal with it in a different form.”

Suu Kyi was invited by the festival itself to attend the premiere, but  hat would mean leaving Burma and risking the chance she would not be allowed back in the country.  Clearly, she won’t risk that until institutionalized democracy finally comes to the Asian country.  As for the movie, Yeoh is convinced she’ll eventually see it, but what she didn’t experience will haunt her most.

“I think probably one of the hardest time for her [will be to watch] what”s happening in Oxford where what Michael is going through,” Yeoh says. “Because you know it”s one thing thinking about it.  Thinking, ‘Oh, you know, I”m not there.’  But to see what they were — [it’s even hard for me] to watch.”

It may be callous to state the obvious, but Suu Kyi’ sacrifices and her continued struggle for the people of Burma should be a tremendous boost for Yeoh’s best actress nomination chances.  Granted, Yeoh gives a great performance, but the movie itself is disappointing considering Besson’s involvement. It feels too much like a Lifetime biopic at times and Besson’s usually strong visual sense is completely missing from it.  From a larger perspective, it really doesn’t matter. Even if Yeoh doesn’t get nominated, the attention a campaign can bring to Suu Kyi’s fight may end up as the biggest win of all.

“The Lady” is expected to be released in Los Angeles and New York for Oscar qualifying before the end of the year.

For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory.