Patricia Arquette plays an American doctor working in Burma who suddenly finds herself in the midst of a conflict between democractic insurgents and their fascist rulers.
After a five-year hiatus, John Boorman returns thoughtful, polemical and as sturdy as ever with this journey into the heart of Burmese darkness. While not pulling any punches in its desire to address Burma's shocking military dictatorship, a frighteningly familiar scenario of mindless slaughter and repression of the masses, the story, in fact, focuses on a young American woman Laura Bowman (Arquette) in 1988 who witnesses first hand the horrors of a subjugated nation.
Bowman is running from her own nightmares - the recent murder of her husband and son - and after losing her passport one humid night during an unnerving political rally, gets caught in a tide of passion and rebellion. She is picked up, alone and drifting, by a would-be tour-guide, the silver-mopped U. Aung Ko (the exiled activist radiantly playing a fictional self) and a strange bond of mutual healing develops.
Passing through the fecund junglescape of Burma - with Malaysia standing in - they find themselves shot-at, despised, almost-raped and constantly hounded by the grim, faceless junta as Boorman mounts an array of extraordinary, violent set-pieces to punctuate their story. And, somewhat predictably, as she is swept along alternately by swollen rivers and tides of refugees Bowman learns to come to terms with her grief, rediscover her doctor's vocation and find untapped reserves of strength.
It's pretty obvious where this is all going and it has neither the fluency nor vision of The Killing Fields. Yet, the unbelievably matured Arquette, blowsy brown and scoured with sweat, and her wizened co-star perform wonders within the limitations of a script seriously tainted by the whiff of ham.
Boorman is too good a storyteller to let things become rantish or melodramatic, mounting political fury on a tragically beautiful canvas and leaving a trail of cruel images, like blisters of guilt, on the conscience long after the story fades.