TORONTO (Reuters) - For action star Michelle Yeoh, one of Asia’s best known actresses, the chance to play Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi posed perhaps the biggest challenge in her nearly three-decade career, and that is exactly what she wanted.
Taking the lead role in “The Lady”, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, meant the responsibility of playing one of the world’s most revered pro-democracy figures, who is still fighting for reform in her native Myanmar.
But it also meant finding the humanity behind Suu Kyi’s iconic image, and capturing the highs and lows of the love affair that helped sustain her through years of detention.
“I knew that this was not just the role of a lifetime, but an incredible story that really needed to be told,” Yeoh said at a press conference in Toronto on Monday.
“I lived and breathed her for the past four years. Every day. Every night. I learned Burmese. I slept with her. I woke up with her. Because it was necessary ... (to) allow you to come into her world.”
Directed by France’s Luc Besson, also known for action films like “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element”, “The Lady” follows Suu Kyi starting in 1988 when she returned to Myanmar, formerly Burma, to care for her ailing mother.
But as the daughter of slain independence hero General Aung San, the charismatic Oxford graduate soon became the figurehead for the country’s fight against the military dictatorship.
While Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 1990 election by a landslide, the military nullified the results and refused to hand over power. Suu Kyi spent 15 years in detention under house arrest for spearheading the campaign.
Covering events up to 2007, “The Lady” centers on one of the lesser known aspects of the 66 year-old Suu Kyi’s life: her marriage to British academic Michael Aris and their two kids.
Aris, an Oxford professor, never wavered in supporting Suu Kyi’s decision to stay in Myanmar, raising their children and playing a key behind-the-scenes role in campaigning for her Nobel Peace Prize. But this choice, which meant years of separation, exacted a huge personal toll on them both.
The relationship took an even more tragic turn when Aris was diagnosed with cancer and denied a visa to visit Suu Kyi a final time. He died in 1999.
“The story was just so moving, because we know more about the political side and the problems they had, but we don’t know about this incredible love story, this soulmate that she had who did everything possible to ensure her safety,” said Yeoh.
“When you love someone you don’t try to change them. And I think he knew what she was about.”
The role marks a huge shift from Yeoh’s early career as a star of Hong Kong action films alongside Jackie Chan, when the former Miss Malaysia famously performed many of her own stunts. She came to the attention of Western audiences as a Bond girl in 1997 movie “Tomorrow Never Dies”, as well as films like director Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
For “The Lady”, Yeoh dove into research about Suu Kyi and even managed to visit her briefly in Myanmar during the production. Initially so in awe she could barely speak, Yeoh said Suu Kyi quickly put her at ease.
“We never spoke about the film. I think it was conscious, on my part, on both our parts, because in no way would we want to put her in danger in case they turn around and say ‘how could you be giving information like that?',” Yeoh said.
The film received a standing ovation and cheers at its gala premiere in Toronto on Monday, where Yeoh mixed with fans and Suu Kyi supporters on the red carpet. But early reviews of the movie have been less than positive.
The Hollywood Reporter said it was a “well-intentioned but pedestrian retelling of a stirring true story”, while the Guardian said the film “says so little about its subject, it would struggle to pass muster as a TV biopic.”
Suu Kyi was released in November 2010 when her latest stint of house arrest expired after elections widely criticized as a sham, since the army made sure it dominated parliament.
With Western countries insisting embargoes against the Myanmar government remain in place until an estimated 2,100 political prisoners are released, cast members said they hope the movie will raise awareness.
“There’s so much else going on in the world and the Burmese struggle is in danger of being forgotten. So I hope this film will just bring it up into the spotlight a little more,” said British actor David Thewlis, who portrays Aris.
With additional reporting by Claire Sibonney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte