Friday, July 30, 2010

Burma!



Yesterday's Enemy ****
(dir. Val Guest, UK, 1959, 95 minutes)
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country ***
(dir. Anders Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008, 84 minutes)
Old Woman 1: "BURMA!"
Old Woman 2: "Why did you say Burma?"
Old Woman 1: "I panicked."

- Monty Python, "The Penguin on the Television Skit"

As happenstance happens, I found myself watching two films about Burma last night. You remember Burma, the country now called Myanmar by its almost-perfect military dictatorship (in power in one form or another since 1962), but storied in jingle (if not song) by Burma-Shave ads and in war stories by British vets of WWII. Think Thailand without the sex tourism or North Korea without the starvation. Bored by the increasingly paltry and polarized news offerings on CNN and MSNBC, I switched over to Turner Classic Movies and watched the superbly cast British war movie Yesterday's Enemy (1959) and, later, the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ (2008) - the latter recommended to me by a refugee relief worker and subsequently added to my NetFlix queue.

Yesterday's Enemy
The scene is Burma during World War II. A small British brigade led by Stanley Baker comes upon a Burmese village controlled by the Japanese. The brigade wipes out the enemy, whereupon Baker discovers that the late Japanese commandant has a coded map secreted on his person. When a Burmese prisoner who can decode the map refuses to talk, Baker orders that two peaceful villagers be executed. Baker's actions seem cruel and extreme until it becomes apparent that the enemy is twice as ruthless as he. Based on a TV play by Peter R. Newman, Yesterday's Enemy is a brutal but insightful look at the blurred line between good and evil in wartime conditions.
- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Yesterday's Enemy was a Hammer Studio film production featuring principals Stanley Baker, Guy Rolfe, and Leo McKern, that struck me as a very realistic depiction of jungle warfare. But as a war movie, it has a dark and existential bent that is rather uncharactistic for its time (the post-war 1950s being a time when most WWII films portrayed the Allies as indisputably Good and the Axis as indisputably Evil). For one thing, it features a war atrocity - the cold-blooded killing of innocent Burmese villagers (albeit in order to extract vital information from a suspected spy - in order to save British soldiers lives and thus, by the logic of this argument, save the lives of tens of thousands of grateful Burmese in the conflict) - raising the moral dilemma of "the rules of war" war and "obeying orders/questioning authority" and foreshadowing similar events in America's subsequent Vietnam War (My Lai, anyone?). When Baker's Capt. Langford and his men are later captured by the Japanese commander Yamazuki, played by veteran Korean-American character actor Philip Ahn (best remember as Master Kan on the TV series Kung-Fu)...


"Hollywood Asian" Philip Ahn as "Kung-Fu" Kan

...he has the same interogation technique used on him; when Baker tries to cop the "We're only here because you started this war!" moral high ground, Ahn reminds him of Great Britain's colonial wars of conquest in the Sudan, India, and South Africa and Baker's silence makes us realize, yeah, maybe everybody has dirty hands in an armed conflict once it gets underway. (Hmmpft! Take that soon-to-be-crumbling British Empire!)

For another, Leo McKern's cynical war correspondent character "Max" at one points angrily laments that all the killing and sacrifice will ultimately serve no purpose other than filling a memorial grave and getting a meaningless posthumous medal for one's widow and fatherless children to store on their mantle. The closing shot is, in fact, a memorial tombstone. (Point taken!)

Guy Rolfe played the film's moral compass as "Padre" the Priest. Rolfe - who was a direct descendent of John Rolfe, the British soldier who married Pocahontas - is fondly remembered by William Castle fans as protagonist Baron Sardonicus in Mr. Sardonicus (1961).


Guy Rolfe as Baron Sardonicus before...


...and after Botox treatment

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country

Burma VJ is a courageous but depressing documentary about a country every bit as "closed" as North Korea but one that doesn't get as much world attention - except for the occasional catastrophic disaster like the monsoon that devastated the nation in 2007 (during which "The Generals" prevented outside aid, more interested in their own survival than their own people's) - because they don't have nuclear weapons and can usually feed their people. It's also a film in which jumpy hand-held camera work is not an edgy you-are-there artistic technique (unfortunately still in vogue in today's indie cinema, especially "mumblecore" ones), but a necessity for staying alive. Burma's flirtations with democracy have been brief, consisting of student-monk protests in 1988 (their 9/11 was 8/8/88, the day hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the country to call for democracy) and the metta sutta prayer-chanting monk-led insurgency chronicled here in 2007 - both inspired by economic hardships (like raising the price of fuel by 500% in 2007), both brutally put down (3,000 protesters alone died in 1988). As General Ne Win said at the time of the first uprising, "When the army shoots, it shoots straight." (No kidding, General.)

The documentary's most striking update to the violence is the utter disregard for the traditionally untouchable monks, who are shown being beaten, disrobed, thrown into paddy wagons, and their temples ransacked. This disregard for passive civil resistance is capsulized in the footage of a dead monk's body floating in a muddy riverbank. Nothing in Burma, apparently, is sacred under the iron grip of the junta.


Metta Sutta-chanting monks ask: What's so funny
'bout peace, love & understanding?


The '88 protests did lead the dictatorship to hold elections in 1990, which 1991 Nobel Peace Price recipient Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide, but the results were nullified and she was - and continues to be - put under house arrest. In fact, she's has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years.

OK, now you're probably wondering why a doc chronicling brave Burmese video journalists (or VJs - and very unlike MTV's VJs!) was made by a Swedish director, Anders Ostergaard. That's because in a land where there is no free press, the only way to smuggle info out is via the Internet (which can be shut down or filtered a la Google in China) or smuggling tapes to the West. In this case, the journalists documenting the protests and crackdowns belong to a guerilla organization called the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) that has contacts in Sweden.

While the rest of the world uploads videos to YouTube showing cute babies, playful kittens, or amateur porn, in Burma uploaded videos are of a more serious nature. They're literally a matter of life and death in a country where the medium is the message and the law of the land says "Kill the messenger."

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