Burma is beautifully filmed in upstate New York during the fall when the leaves have changed to brilliant colors, symbolizing passions raised when a father returns unexpectedly years after he abruptly left for Burma when his wife was dying of cancer. We are set up by our preconceived notions of what that implies, but we may be in for a surprise, because what ensues will likely change the picture--depending on your point of view. Obviously, the man’s children, now grown, will have varying reactions to it.
The story, written by first-time director of a feature film Carlos Puga, is a realistic picture of what might happen in those circumstances. The beauty of the characters is that they have depth and are psychologically consistent and multidimensional. In a way, they represent a cross-section of that generation of Americans in the 1980’s, and perhaps now as well. Drugs are a problem for one; one lives in suburbia trying to maintain a marriage, and one is professionally successful and on his way up. The oldest daughter, Susan (Gaby Hoffmann) has been the one to fill in for the mother—actually, both parents—and she is nurturing and has made efforts to maintain family traditions to keep them together. The older son, Christian (Christopher Abbott) is the most grief-stricken and resentful, carrying around a huge degree of hostility that undermines him time and again in his efforts to be a recognized writer. Win (Dan Bittner) is the youngest and seems least affected, as he was very young when his father left. He has an academic appointment and is already being awarded prizes for his work.
When the father (Christopher McCann) unexpectedly shows up for the annual reunion marking the mother’s birthday (she had established a tradition of everyone getting together and giving presents to everyone else instead of to her on her birthday), he is met with chagrin and outright hostility by Christian and Susan. At Christian’s front door, he calmly explains that he has something to tell them and that is why he has come. He deflects all rude remarks like the psychiatrist he is, while firmly sticking with his plan to talk with everyone together. Christian reluctantly agrees to drive him to Susan’s, but is apprehensive about her reaction. As the mother’s surrogate, Susan is a powerful figure. To complicate matters, Susan has taken it upon herself to invite Christian’s former girlfriend to join the reunion and Christian is to drive her. (I am not sure of the director’s intention in including this character, except that she is some kind of psychologist—or one in training—and periodically makes interpretations, particularly in regard to Christian, who is highly annoyed, of course.) The arrival of this motley trio at Susan’s door has all the expected awkwardness. Susan is livid and relegates her father to a storage room on the grounds of her home, which is filled with family mementos.
The weekend proceeds, with family members trying to accommodate to the presence of the father and to conflicted issues they have with one another. Some presents are exchanged—not equally—which adds to the discomfort. Nevertheless, the announcement is made, shocking everyone, and they must accommodate to this new information, which goes against years of speculation. Win and Susan’s daughter Charlie (Jacinta Puga) add sunny interludes and a relief from the family drama playing out over the weekend.
This is a heavy movie in a way, offset to some extent by the beauty of the landscape and the grounds where the family stays over a weekend, as well as the characters Win and Charlie. It reminds me of the last part of the recently released Before Midnight, a Richard Linklater film, when the couple is trying to work through marital problems. The script successfully and realistically captures an important occasion in people’s lives, and the actors are of the same quality, with Abbott, Hoffmann, and McCann brilliantly illuminating the drama. I am guessing this is the first or one of the few films that have probingly addressed a father’s abandonment of his family when the mother is dying.
The cinematography (Tom Richmond), in addition to presenting gorgeous scenes of the outdoors and framing indoors, perfectly mirrors what is going on in the story. As an example, there is fog when Christian is suffering and on a soul-searching but confused walk in the evening. Two pairs of shoes sit side by side near a lake where Charlie and Christian are rollicking in the water. Light and shadow, focus and blurring, unusual color combinations, and unusual perspectives are motifs in this talented photographer’s work.
Although this may not be a film for everyone, its basic human story should speak to most, even though the parallels with one’s own life may differ. It well deserves the SXSW Film Festival Narrative Feature Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast. Grade: A By: Donna Copeland