American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The movies have always known how to make the Inscrutable East scrutable: They create Western heroes and send them there to scrute it, and then we see the situation through their eyes. This is known in screenwriting class as "providing a point of entry for the audience." It has given us Mel Gibson in Indonesia, Robert Mitchum in Japan and Lawrence in Arabia, and now Patricia Arquette, stranded in Burma in "Beyond Rangoon." But wait. I sound too cynical. The strategy is perfectly acceptable in commercial films, because the Western audience can then identify with places and issues that might otherwise elude them. In the case of "Beyond Rangoon," director John Boorman is concerned with political repression in Burma, which has existed under a state of martial law for several years with, until recently, its Nobel Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.
A film titled "Aung San Suu Kyi: Burmese Heroine" would probably not draw long lines at the American box office, and so Boorman has written an action adventure in which a heroic and attractive American doctor (Arquette) battles police, fords rivers, saves lives and dodges bullets while learning about life under the Burmese dictatorship. Because the film is well acted and directed, and the Malaysian locations are exotic and seductive, I got involved even though the story ("based on actual events," of course) was so clearly concocted.
As the movie opens, two sisters arrive with a tour group in Burma. Laura (Arquette) is mourning the violent deaths of her husband and son, and Andy (Frances McDormand) has brought her to the Far East for a change of scenery. Laura learns that in the Buddhist world, "suffering is the ultimate achievement of man." This fails to cheer her up, and, fleeing from her hotel into the streets, she's swept up with a crowd of political demonstrators. She is an eyewitness as Aung San Suu Kyi calmly faces down soldiers with rifles: They begin to tremble, as the smiling young woman leads her followers right through their ranks.
The next day, the tour group is ordered out of Burma. But Laura has lost her passport, and has to stay behind, hearing the last words anyone wants to hear on a package tour: "You might be the only tourist left in the country." Wandering in the city, she encounters a would-be guide named U Aung Ko (played by U Aung Ko, although the film's notes assure us the character is not based on him). He is a former professor, now reduced to showing tourists around because he made imprudent political statements and backed the dissidents. Laura stays by his side as he introduces her to a group of revolutionary students, and then, at a train station, troops open fire, one of the students is killed, U Aung is beaten, and Laura jumps from the safety of the train and casts her lot with the outsiders.