Luc Besson dedicates himself to telling the story of a lady

In a departure from his typically Hollywood style, the French director Luc Besson dedicated himself to depicting Aung San Suu Kyi in an honest and emotional way in the film The Lady.

Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi and David Thewlis as her husband Michael in The Lady. AP
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Most movie fans will have a special Luc Besson moment, a scene from one of his many films that is permanently lodged somewhere in their cerebral cortex for easy access.

Perhaps it's the first pill-crunching neck click of Gary Oldman's psychopathic, drug-addled police chief in Leon. Maybe it's the enchanting multi-octave dance opera of the blue Diva in The Fifth Element, sung in perfect time with Milla Jovovich's alien whacking karate kicks. Then there's Jacques swimming away with the dolphin in Le Grand Bleu's emotional final sequence, or the ferocious gun-battle opening of Nikita.

Given the films mostly associated with Besson, few would have expected the man once dubbed "the most Hollywood of French filmmakers" to head in the direction of a political biopic, especially one of a figure very much alive and regarding an issue that is still making international headlines. But that's exactly what he has done with The Lady, which is out today across the UAE, an emotional portrayal of 10 tumultuous years in the life of the Myanmar politician, pro-democracy fighter and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, played superbly by the Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh.

"When I first read the script, I was in tears," says the 53-year-old director, speaking at last year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival. "I said, 'This is what I want to do', but not from a political point of view, on an emotional level. There was no way I was going to get someone else to do the film."

The Lady isn't the first time Besson has turned his hand to making films about strong women, something that Yeoh had in mind when she approached him to direct. Aside from Nikita and The Fifth Element's flame-haired "supreme being" Leeloo, on a more historical trip there's the 15th-century French heroine, Joan of Arc, whom he brought back to life in 1999.

But these are all films of a thrills and spills nature, be it with guns, swords or Jean Paul Gaultier-clothed aliens. The Lady is an altogether different tale, a tragic and - at times - heart-wrenching drama that attempts to show the emotional strength and pain of a woman trapped in house arrest by the Myanmar military junta; a mother forced to choose between her family in the UK or her country in Asia, a decision that ultimately sees her separated from her husband (played by David Thewlis) for 11 years and unable to see him before he died of cancer in 1999.

"You're not able to make this kind of film when you're 25 years old," says Besson. "And then one day you're 50 and your main concerns in life are quite different. You react more to this type of story."

Most of Besson's biggest films had been ideas swirling in his colourful imagination years before they were released (the original story for The Fifth Element was written while he was in school), but with Myanmar's politics and Aung San Suu Kyi he had something far bigger than science fiction adventure, a subject where maintaining historical accuracy would be paramount.

"When you have this type of story you have to work in circles," he explains, adding that he did the same with Joan of Arc. "The large circle first, you grab a book about the history of Burma [Myanmar], start with that. Then a book about geography. You have this country locked within mountains in the east, west and north, and suddenly you see why they weren't invaded easily. And then you go to the people, you read about Buddhism. And then you go circle by circle until you get to the last circle, which is her."

Beyond biographical research, Besson went to painstaking levels of precision on set. With The Lady largely filmed in Thailand because the crew weren't allowed in Myanmar, an exact 1:1 scale model of Suu Kyi's lakeside home in Yangon was built based on satellite images and hundreds of family photos.

For one of the film's biggest scenes, in which Suu Kyi gives her first pro-democracy speech to supporters, Besson recruited Myanmar refugees living in Thailand, some of whom had heard the original speech in 1988.

Often filming under the radar, but with several thousand extras, there was concern that word would slip out and affect scheduling, so requests were made for nobody to take photos or post anything on Facebook. They didn't, and Besson says he was shocked by the amount of respect that was shown. "Try doing that in Europe. Even my own cousin or brother would do it."

During filming in November 2010, the house arrest of Suu Kyi was lifted, and both Yeoh and Besson were able to meet their heroine. "To meet her is an experience," he says. "It's probably the first time in my life where I was very impressed to meet someone, because she's very kind and gentle and open. But it was frustrating, as I worked for a year on her and then met her when the film was over. You can't help the film."

Much has changed since The Lady was completed. Suu Kyi has now been allowed to contest for and win a seat in the Myanmar parliament, and has recently embarked on a historic international tour, last month addressing the British parliament in Westminster, the first time she has been back to her former country of residence since 1988.

But despite talk of reform, with the military having handed over power to a quasi-civilian government 15 months ago, The Lady is - unsurprisingly - yet to make it into Myanmar's cinemas. Not that this has stopped the widespread sale of poorly copied DVDs on the streets of Yangon. Thankfully, Besson doesn't mind.

"Maybe this is the only time I will encourage piracy," he smiles.