Myanmar's once-proud film industry a flicker of its former self
Repressive military rule ended its golden age decades ago. Now that things are loosening up, can it make a comeback?
Down a back road in northern Yangon, a sagging teak house fights back the jungle. On the gate, barely noticeable under the weeds, rusty ironwork spells out "A1 Film."
Myanmar's first movie studio, once known as the Burma Film Co., opened nearly a century ago, its lineage dating to the nation's first feature film, "Love and Liquor," a 1920 cautionary tale about gambling and alcoholism that proved a big hit despite its rather monotonous single camera angle.
"We used to be huge," said actor and director Ko Myint, the great-grandson of A1's founder, sounding like a Burmese version of "Sunset Boulevard" as he welcomed a rare Western guest in a sitting room of well-worn furniture and fading photos.
His mother, Khin Hle, 93, toddled in. Beneath a shelf of dusty family awards, she reminisced about her film debut in 1925 as a child actor, then shuffled off to another room on a property that has shrunk from 25 acres to just one.
"Indian and Thai actors used to come here because this was where it all happened," said another family member, teacher Aung Si, 68. "Now we Burmese leave for Japan to wash dishes."
Decades of repressive military rule, with its accompanying global isolation, censorship and equipment shortages, left Myanmar's once-proud film industry reeling.
"No one even had books to read for 40 years. How could they make good films?" asked Tin May Thein, a consultant helping foreign companies enter the Myanmar market.
No one even had books to read for 40 years. How could they make good films?"
— Tin May Thein.
Censors are relaxing and international sanctions against the regime are easing in the wake of nominally democratic elections last year, but turning around an industry that saw its golden age six decades ago won't be easy.
Once-grand cinema halls are being torn down for cookie-cutter mini-malls: In December 2011, Myanmar had 71 cinemas, down from a peak of 244. Along cinema row on Bogyoke Road here in the country's old capital, three monuments to celluloid have been leveled; two others are said to be close behind.
"The culture surrounding the stand-alone movie theater is quickly being stamped out in Yangon, if not all of Burma," said Philip Jablon, author of a blog on Southeast Asian cinema.
And Hollywood is moving in. Last year, "Titanic 3-D" opened in Yangon, the first American film premiere in more than a decade. The market is saturated with pirated Thai, Chinese, South Korean and American DVDs. Video games and changing tastes have undercut a local industry many believe has lost the plot.
"I never go to Burmese movies," said Yan Naing, 38, a disc jockey in Mandalay. The homegrown fare, he said, is "silly."
His rhinestone flip-flops flashing and six gold rings glinting, director Maung Thi observed the preparations on the set of "Gon," took a breath and then shouted the classic Hollywood line: "Action!"
And he meant it: The veteran filmmaker had seven days to shoot the film, a C-grade movie headed for small rural theaters or straight to video, one of 15 flicks he's pumped out every year since 1989. (His schedule is considered a luxury compared with those of competitors, who usually have to wrap in 72 hours.)
The twisted plot, with a nod to "Romeo and Juliet," centers on two business rivals, one of whom elopes with the other's sister. But Shakespeare it's not.
"I fall in love and run away," said leading lady May Kabyar, preening in a fluorescent red jacket. "That's about it, basic stuff."
The long slide of the Burmese film industry began soon after the 1962 coup that brought the military to power.
In the 1960s, cinemas were nationalized, acceptable topics were narrowed, and the industry was ordered to "march to Burmese socialism." The government tried to take over film production, but an early effort, "The Beloved Land," flopped. So the government left the creative side in private, and heavily monitored, hands.
For a while, censors could still be influenced with "tea money" — bribes — and the industry remained relatively vibrant until the mid-1970s.
"There was nothing else to do," said actor and director Thein Htut, Ko Myint's brother, sporting long gray sideburns and a Nehru jacket. "There was no TV, the cinemas were full, it was great."
Kyaw Yin Myint, bureau chief at the weekly Kumudra Journal newspaper, recalled chomping on seeds — Myanmar's popcorn equivalent — in the early 1970s as oversized ceiling fans battled the tropical humidity.
"Cinemas were hot, noisy and showed black-and-white films," he said. "It was magical."
Some directors tried pushing the limits. On the coup's 10th anniversary, A1 shot "Journey to Piya," about a one-day road trip that becomes 10 after repeated breakdowns, a dig at the country's crippled socialist economy. Censors banned it and put Ko Myint's family on warning.
"It was worth it," said brother Thein Htut.
Sometimes the regime displayed its paranoia. In "Like Steel Wool," a mid-1970s A1 production about a runaway daughter, a character asks, "Whose empty chair is that?" Censors read this as a reference to Prime Minister U Nu, who was ousted in the coup.
Cinemas were hot, noisy and showed black-and-white films. It was magical."
— Kyaw Yin Myint.
"We had to change the plot six times and were interrogated by Special Branch police," Ko Myint said. "They saw things that weren't there."
Guidelines ranged from the predictable to the quirky. The army had to be depicted gloriously. And despite its own reliance on astrologers for major decisions, the regime hated special effects or anything involving spirits, astrology or the supernatural.
In the final scene of his 1960s biopic about a famous Burmese writer, director Myo Zaw Aung showed his subject withering away, leaving a skeleton. "They said it was too scary and snipped it," he said. "They never even watched the whole film."
Other taboos included actresses in revealing Western clothing, actors in tight pants, depictions of drinking and smoking simultaneously (each was tolerated alone), drunken women who find boyfriends, and people living in bamboo huts.
" 'Bamboo huts suggest we have poor people,' they said," said Ai Thein Htut, another director. " 'Myanmar's not poor,' they'd add."
Over time, directors grew tired of fighting. Self-censorship increased, and in the 1970s and '80s, many retreated to mindless love-triangle stories — Myanmar's "three flowers facing each other" genre — or shamelessly copied foreign stories.
After pro-democracy protests erupted in 1988, which many directors and actors joined, creative license all but disappeared. Myanmar's growing isolation as Western nations imposed economic sanctions also made it increasingly difficult to obtain equipment or film.
"Everything was messed up by socialism," said Tin May Thein, the consultant, "and it only got worse."
Those who cozied up to the regime — the 1999 TV movie "Our Nation, Happily Prosperous" was well-received by the ruling generals — saw their careers prosper, even as the regime sought to block foreign culture. "Rambo," the fourth movie in the Sylvester Stallone series, was banned in 2008 for depicting the Burmese military as bloodthirsty. "The Simpsons Movie" was blocked because censors, in a bizarre move, had forbidden using the colors yellow and red in films.
With the dramatic changes brought about by the elections last spring, restrictions have eased and the film industry has been given seats on the censorship board. The military remains in control, however, and filmmakers still tread warily.
"You can't criticize religion," Ai Thein Htut said. "And the military is still off limits, although you can touch corrupt police."
Among the industry's biggest problems is its outdated mind-set, said Bill Bowling, a production consultant who has worked in Myanmar. The film establishment is so risk-averse and beaten down that any resurgence is likely to come from more dynamic television producers, he said.
"There's so much potential," he said. "It's such a shame."
Some younger filmmakers are taking risks. "Ban That Scene!" an 18-minute short, took first prize at a recent Art of Freedom film festival co-hosted by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The film portrays Myanmar censors gleefully chopping scenes about corruption, street fights and beggars. "If foreigners see this, they'll think Myanmar has beggars," a censor in the movie fumes. "Beggars may exist in real life, but not in movies." The character then shouts down suggestions that electricity is limited just before a blackout hits the projection room.
"Ban That Scene!" avoided being banned itself through a technicality: The board screens films for sale, and this film was distributed for free.
That's fine for intellectuals, said Maung Maung Thein, a poet and English teacher, but Myanmar still needs better indigenous productions, not silly comedies and action pictures.
"Most of it isn't even entertaining," echoed Ma Thida, executive editor of the Myanmar Independent News Journal, a literary weekly. "It's mindless comedy that's not even funny."
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