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Water World – Beyond Rangoon

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 31 No. 4, July/August 1995]

The world is full of women who hunger for movies that unreel not Gawain’s but Guinevere’s gutsy quest to repair her own – and thus others’ – ”broken souls and psyches. The Round Table of peerless travelin’ ladies includes Bringing Up Baby‘s Katharine Hepburn, a vessel of dangerous anarchy into which her juiceless lover (Cary Grant) must dive to save them both from deathly extremes. And Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, scenting out the dark, devouring angel who will perversely father her into wholeness. Seat too the sadly underrated Closet Land‘s Madeleine Stowe, who braves a lacerating descent into the “ultimate closet” of her own violated self, another brutal Janus-faced male her guide and confessor. And Sigourney Weaver’s tough mother, crucified for humankind at the end of the Alien trilogy in a fortunate fall into fire.

Beyond Rangoon
Beyond Rangoon

Such mythic passages for distaff knights are rare as hen’s teeth. Thank goddess for John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, a pell-mell adventure featuring a Lancelot who happens to be woman, doctor, and tragically bereaved mother and wife. The derailed tourists in this new film and David Lean’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India are sisters under the skin. But the real-as-headlines, yet timeless, journey Boorman’s Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette) makes through alternately fecund and fatal Burma is “known” in her (and our) blood and nerve-endings.

In contrast, the “passage to more than India” that transforms bony, brainy Adele Quested (Judy Davis) is fueled by a drier, more metaphysical outrage. Immersed in an Otherness of her own making, Davis confronts the dark, heated disorder that reduces character and experience to a cosmic sound effect signifying nothing. By the time of A Passage to India‘s homecoming, Quested has matriculated into an older soul, worthy daughter of the cozily mystical Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) who, gazing into the moonspangled Ganges where corpses sometimes float, exclaims, “What a terrible river!” then, “What a wonderful river!” (Mrs. Moore’s cosmic opposites flow through every film by Boorman, an artist who acknowledges that his most abundant visions iris–out into darkness.)

Boorman’s quester beyond Rangoon sets out as a member of the walking dead, a fragged spirit barely tethered to her flesh, for whom the wheel of time, of life, has stalled. (The image of that wheel on monastery walls and as shadow on the ground at her very feet greenlights Laura’s eventual takeoff into “more than Burma.”) Early on, sightseeing a monumentally reclining, dreaming Buddha, Laura listens indifferently as their tour guide (Spalding Gray) puns on the Buddhists’ lack of belief in the soul by gesturing at the bottoms of the statue’s great feet, adorned by stories shaped in curving pictograms. Behind him, parents caution their son to come down from Buddha’s back. Boorman creates a visual schism between foreground religious studies and background actuality. The effect suggests the kind of Hitchcockian back–projection that often signaled psychic deracination for traumatized heroines such as Marnie or Kim Novak X2 in Vertigo.

When the little boy loses his footing and tumbles down the statue, Laura shrieks an SOS for her sister and fellow doctor (Frances McDormand) then stands stock still, frozen in impotence. She calls herself spiritual “stone” (her medical skills–like wounded Arthur’s Excalibur–grounded). Later, in her hotel room mirror, her fractured soul is imaged in doubled, separated reflections.

Gray’s punning on soul and sole is more apt than this first, “false” guide knows: the hero’s journey in Beyond Rangoon is driven by concrete mysticism. When Laura Bowman steps out of stone into the bloody drama of Burma’s politics, an authentic action-adventure is launched, far more visually and viscerally absorbing than most contemporary super-man epics. Drawn ever deeper into Third World danger by a highly “unofficial” tour guide (Aung Ko), Laura Bowman’s soles touch down in a teeming backcountry where, armed with knife, gun, and her own bright courage, this Prince Valiant-coiffed woman fights her way through the stations of Boorman’s typically river-crossed path to rebirth.

Still lodged in the Kipling Hotel, Laura dreams of her lost life, and Boorman’s camera lifts to look down on her through a revolving ceiling fan. Almost immediately, as though galvanized by that circular motion, she wakes to the sounds of people running, shouting in the street. This is Beyond Rangoon‘s first formal wakeup call to take to the saving road, and Laura chases the street rally as though hastening not to a tense standoff between soldiers and political protesters, but toward some longed-for reunion.

Heralding the coming of Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel prize-winning dissident under house arrest for years and soon to be on trial in Burma, played by Adelle Lutz), the Burmese woman who heads the mostly youthful dissidents, a little girl shyly touches Laura’s hand, the first in a series of guiding, arming signals by children who stand in reality for the counsel offered by her murdered son in dreams.

Suu Kiy walks deliberately into the soldiers’ ranked guns, almost the graceful hostess greeting guests. Laura watches, mesmerized, as the woman’s serenely beautiful face gathers and aims the power of self until she literally quakes the uniformed men out of her way. In Boorman’s Merlin-animated mise-en-scene, Suu Kiy becomes Laura’s patron goddess. Standing in for the Arthurian lady in the lake, she opens a channel of creative energy, breaking Laura’s “curse” to turn stone into flesh-and-blood warrior.

Once mothered, Laura attaches herself to an exquisitely civilized cicerone in the guise of fatherly Aung Ko, a university professor imprisoned and exiled forever from teaching for his support of anti-government students. Boorman makes us see and feel mythic resonance each time his heroine crosses a Rubicon: it’s as though the fabric of reality shivers like water, racking focus into a new, altered pattern of experience. In one eerie exchange, Laura’s head turns –almost in slow motion–to witness the old man, bent forward, Sisyphus-like, outside the passenger side of the car, laboriously pushing the stalled vehicle through a pelting rainstorm. With near-ritual precision, Laura opens her door, gets out into the heavy weather, and wordlessly adds her weight to the effort.

And later on in our knight’s reanimation, she and Aung Ko careen down a forest track in that old car, closely pursued by government troops. A shot is fired, the professor is hit, and Boorman’s heroine turns to look back–her rear-window view of rapidly gaining death framed through the circle of a bullet hole. Previously, Laura had gazed out impassively through car-window glass, wiped by passing, unreal reflections. But now her bell jar has been shattered by a plunge into the down-and-dirty, the ground where matters of life and death draw blood.

Cast into a muddy river with her badly wounded friend, Laura swims away from the soldiers’ guns; her panting grunts erupt from deep inside her. In contrast to her nearly disembodied scream when the child fell from the Buddha, these are the primal sounds of an animal fighting blindly, ruthlessly to stay alive. Baptism and resurrection intersect, exhilaratingly, in the rising line of her firm-fleshed arm as it reaches up–in Boorman’s trademark image of power born of regenerative waters–to grasp a low-hanging limb. At this moment, Laura becomes her own lady of the lake, raising her submerged will, unsheathing the Excalibur of her spirit from stone.

Almost immediately, true to mythic tradition, she faces a crucial setback: thrashing to break through tangled branches at river’s edge, Laura is thrown backwards, to literally grovel in a muddy soup after she drops the locket that contains pictures of her beloved dead. Kneeling in place, clutching her funerary talisman, Boorman’s mother-healer trances out, as she does at several crucial junctures: her wonderfully molded face blanks, her eyes go flat with a dull darkness, and the flesh that lately pulsed with the desire to stay alive pales, as though her very blood had receded, stopped flowing.

The suffering Aung Ko’s groan labors Laura back into life; she takes renewed fire, picking up a cudgel to beat down the thicket she has despaired of escaping. As she explodes out of the foliage, she’s greeted by the sight of a little Burmese boy–he has a perfectly legitimate reason for being there, but he’s also a reflection of the lively child released in her as well as the receding ghost of her son.

Boorman “dreams” Patricia Arquette as he wants and needs his heroine to be. (In his serious-whimsical I Dreamt I Woke Up, Boorman and John Hurt, who plays the director as dreamer, exchange horrified glances at the sight and sound of an ungendered, militantly anti-magic feminist; Hurt turns desperately to his movie making self to demand, “Can’t you make her the way we want her to be?”) Weaving Merlin’s “spell of making” from Excalibur, Arquette’s auteur magicks his lady Arthur into an heroic largeness that could never have been achieved simply by the actress’s gaining 25 pounds for the shoot.

In the amniotic fluid of his imagination and Burma’s many rivers, Arquette grows as performer and character to inhabit her flesh in a wholly new way–she literally doesn’t resemble any of her previous screen incarnations. Every plane and curve of her face and body seems gravid with that appetite for life, fueled by some vital essence that makes humankind cling so passionately to earth. Her face projects bravely forward out of Boorman’s frames like some almost heiratic mask, a sustaining larger-than-life fabrication. Never constricted by conventional sexiness, Arquette’s lush body–at home on ground as in water–carries the promising weight of strength and usefulness.

When she bridges her last river, Arquette’s Laura Bowman strides into her future, a red cross knight ready for the long haul of life. Out of a terrible wound–the murders of her husband and little son–this Fisher-Queen has fashioned and mastered her soul’s best art and armament: her regenerated gift for healing restrings Laura’s bow.

In a sense, Beyond Rangoon is the story of a woman who comes to be comfortable in her own skin, one of the better definitions of a hero. In I Dreamt I Woke Up, Boorman’s “better homes and gardens” mythification of his Emerald Forest estate in Ireland, the director admits that he feels himself to be a “ridiculous man,” far short of a hero and never at home in his own skin. Cinematic avatars such as Merlin and Arthur are “the men I ought to have been.” Add Laura Bowman to the pantheon. She’s a wondrous fish, that old pagan symbol serving up knowledge and fruitfulness. Toward the end of Boorman’s dream of an Irish Camelot, his beloved vegetation deity the Green Man wrestles a beautiful, silvery, salmon-like water spirit into the mud and opens her belly to devour the multihued flowers teeming there. This randy coupling emblemizes Boorman’s dynamics of the imagination and the mythic cycle of death and rebirth that drives the waterwheel of Beyond Rangoon.

© 1995 Kathleen Murphy

[Beyond Rangoon debuts on DVD on 5/26/09]