On Nov. 13, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi walked free from seven years of house arrest in Rangoon. She called her son Kim Aris. She greeted supporters outside her lakeside home. Then she got on a plane to Bangkok where, on a stage erected in a parking lot on the city's outskirts, she appeared in a film made by a bearded Frenchman called Luc Something.
That's what some of the 2,000 Thai extras on the set of Luc Besson's latest movie seem to think, and their confusion is forgivable. Since filming of his biopic The Lady began in Thailand in mid-October, everyone from Besson to best boy has been perplexed by how often art has imitated life and vice versa.
Take Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh, the former Bond girl who plays Suu Kyi. Yeoh not only strongly resembles the lissome Nobel laureate, but also occupies the part so convincingly that Besson calls it "perfect for her." "From the moment I saw this actress," says Thein Win, a Burmese actor playing a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), "I thought, 'She is Daw [Aunt] Suu.'"
Movie magic and reality merged again when the junta finally allowed Suu Kyi to walk free. Besson had just re-created her release from a previous spell of house arrest, when she steps out of her Rangoon home to cheers from a crowd of supporters. Two days later, Besson and his cast sat in Yeoh's Bangkok hotel suite to watch a near identical scene this one for real play out on TV. "It was surreal," says Besson. Also in the room was Aris, chatting on the phone to his mother: "I'm here with Michelle. Yes, the woman playing you." Then the champagne started flowing. "It was so sweet," says Yeoh. "We were all very privileged to share that moment with him."
Both celebrated and scorned for his popular success, Besson has in recent years produced more films than he has directed. Then Yeoh showed him a screenplay about Suu Kyi, sent to her by British writer Rebecca Frayn. "The more I read, the more I wanted to direct it myself," says Besson. "Her life story is amazing. It's almost Shakespearean."
After studying at Oxford University, Suu Kyi married academic Michael Aris and raised their two sons in England. She returned to Burma in 1988 to nurse her ailing mother and was swept up in the democracy protests, becoming the symbol of the Burmese people's struggle against military rule. She later spent years in prison or under house arrest. When Aris was dying of cancer in 1999, the junta denied him entry to Burma to see his wife for the last time, while Suu Kyi refused to leave for fear she couldn't return. "She has to be an icon ... And she has to be a wife and mother," says Besson. "That's what makes her character so interesting and rich to film."
The Lady's Thailand scenes have to be shot discreetly, mainly, it seems, to mollify the Thai government, which is forging closer relations with Burma's generals. To avoid offending the authorities, who would possibly order the shoot shut down, scripts carry a deliberately insipid working title (Dans la Lumière) that gives no clue to their content. Cast and crew have signed confidentiality agreements. And TIME is the only publication allowed on the set.
If secrecy is one obsession, authenticity is another. The sets Suu Kyi's dilapidated house, her cell in Rangoon's Insein jail are the results of meticulous research; many of the cast are from Burma. The realism often overwhelms exiled actor Thein Win, who not only plays an NLD member but is one. He attended party meetings with Suu Kyi before fleeing Burma in 1991. And he wept real tears during the scene in which Yeoh as Suu Kyi bids farewell to her sons before her incarceration. "It was heartbreaking to watch," Thein Win says.
Later, during a break in filming, Yeoh would fly to Rangoon to meet with Suu Kyi. "It was like visiting a family friend," Yeoh says. "She held my hand. I was mesmerized." One of Besson's motivations for making The Lady was to publicize Suu Kyi's plight. With her release, "She doesn't need us for now," he jokes. But he hopes his film will remind audiences that "real democracy" is still a long way off. If you live in Burma, it's a safe bet that The Lady won't be showing in a cinema near you.