Can Myanmar cinema get a second act?

The industry flourished well into junta rule, with lavish productions and movie houses packed with audiences hungry for homegrown fare. But starting in the 1970s a combination of factors started the downhill slide to where the industry is now a pale shadow of its glorious past.

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Published in The Bangkok Post on 14 July 2013

Some of posters in the Myanmar Motion Picture Museum are suffering from wear and tear.
Some of posters in the Myanmar Motion Picture Museum are suffering from wear and tear.

The industry flourished well into junta rule, with lavish productions and movie houses packed with audiences hungry for homegrown fare. But starting in the 1970s a combination of factors started the downhill slide to where the industry is now a pale shadow of its glorious past.

During its 93 year history, Myanmar’s film industry has experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs. However to say that its downward spiral began following the 1962 coup that brought the military and a socialist regime to power – as many commentators contend – isn’t entirely accurate. Total shutdowns preceded the coup and an arguably more sinister atmosphere developed decades afterwards it.

Things started well – very well. Its first film studio, the Burma Film Co, screened the nation’s first feature film “Love and Liquor” on 13 October 1920, a date that continues to be commemorated annually as Movie Day. As early as 1920, Myanmar actresses went abroad to star in Indian and Japanese films, and by 1932 the industry had graduated from silent films to sound. Bollywood followed suit a year later.

'Love and Liquor' was made in 1920 - it was Myanmar's first feature film.
‘Love and Liquor’ was made in 1920 – it was Myanmar’s first feature film.

Historical films and family dramas dominated throughout the 1920s and in 1931, the 1928 film, Wishing on a Grand Thing, was exported to English viewers.

In the 1930s, A1 Film Company’s luxurious 30-acre studio came to be referred to as “‘Burma’s Hollywood.’ “It represented the excitement and glamour of the film industry,” recalled U Myint Soe, the nephew of A1’s founder U Nyi Pu.

The 1930s also witnessed the emergence of stunt films and animation, with the first animated short made in what was then known as Bombay. Although films dealing with social and political themes – such as gambling and corruption – were widely popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s, several were censored by the British colonial government.

Then came the Japanese invasion of 1941. So many cinema halls were bombed that the industry turned to stage dramas – no films whatsoever were made until the occupation ended five years later.

The celebrated actress Grace Swe Zin Htaik, a Myanmar Academy Award winner and five time nominee, told The Bangkok Post, “We started making films again in 1946, but the quality was no good. During the occupation we couldn’t buy film, so we’d tried to save our stock by burying it. But the temperature underground caused the film to deteriorate.”

Just 20 films were made in 1947, which gradually crept up to 40 and then 60.

Like Bollywood, Myanmar’s golden years of cinema took place during the 1950s. The Academy Awards were launched in 1952 and haven’t missed a year since.

Even a Myanmar president got into the act – in 1953 President U Nu wrote a script called “The People Win Through”, which was picked up by Cascade Pictures California.

“It’s a classic film that promotes human rights and was strongly anti-Communist,” Grace said.

Grace on the cover of a film industry magazine, which sadly are far fewer in number today.
Grace on the cover of a film industry magazine, which sadly are far fewer in number today.

An Indian representative from Universal Studios came to Myanmar during the early 1950s to provide assistance and much needed film stock. Locals were keen to upgrade their technical skills by working with a number of visiting international experts. At the same time, the number of production houses and cinemas multiplied exponentially.

Aung Si, 68, a descendent of A1’s founder, said of the era, “Indian and Thai actors used to come here because this was where it all happened.”

Grace concurs. “We were the light of Southeast Asia’s film industry – those are the days we miss. We were ahead but now we’re behind… Perhaps it’s only natural,” she added with a bittersweet laugh.

Another highlight of the era was the British war film Purple Plain (1954), which starred Gregory Peck and Win Min Than – who was depicted as a Burmese woman called Anna who got Peck back on his feet following the death of his wife. Grace is “pestering” the US ambassador Derek Mitchell for the two-time BAFTA nominated film to be screened during a film festival hosted by the US embassy early next year.

As a former British colony, many assume that Myanmar’s early dominance in film was the result of British influence or assistance. Yet stalwarts in the film industry are keen to point out this is overplayed at best.

“The UK’s influence was negligible,” Grace said matter-of-factly.

“Some support was offered in terms of content. But unlike Laos, which is supported by the French Film Institute, there’s no British funding nowadays.”

However she did say that the British Council recently conducted a script writing course as well as pre and post production training. “We need to entice more organisations to do the same.”

US Senator Herbert Grant accopanies the father of the nation, Aung San - pictured left - to attend  an exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of Myanmar cinema.
US Senator Herbert Grant accopanies the father of the nation, Aung San – pictured left – to attend an exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of Myanmar cinema.

Grace expressed gratitude to the Michigan-based Ford Foundation, who provided significant sums of money to create a collaborative documentary. When the camera operators and film directors finished the project, they left behind the equipment, which was subsequently donated to Myanmar’s film development board.

The two-time Academy Award winning director U Soe Moe concurs on the British question, albeit more in relation to the lack of cultural influence.

“Since Britain’s colonial rule, Myanmar filmmaking has never been influenced by the British. The earliest Myanmar movies, such as “Love and Liquor”… have the usual qualities and features of Myanmar films,” he said.

He added that Myanmar filmmakers have never adopted British filmmaking techniques, although some of his older filmmaker friends did use British-made equipment for sound recording during the colonial era.

In the late 1950s, when Britain’s misguided and haphazard censorship interventions ceased to exist following independence, a national censorship board was established.

But it was perhaps to assert itself, as artist Wah Nu indicates. Her father and grandfather were well-known directors and her uncle, an actor, and as she remembers, “My grandfather started making films in 1959 and he had no problems with censorship. He made movies about the lives of common people. It was a good period for film – 100 movies were still being every year.”

When the Revolutionary Council was formed in 1962, the government looked to China’s film industry as a case study: it produced the content itself and screened its films at government-owned cinemas. However due to the high costs of production such a model demanded (chiefly the large crew), the Revolutionary Council abandoned the plan and found a different approach to influencing film.

As Kyi Soe Tun, an award winning director with 34 films under his belt and the host of a Friday night television programme, Movie Talk, said, “[The government] left the creative side to us, albeit in heavily monitored hands.”

A bizarre decree in 1982 stipulated that actors must make three movies simultaneously.

“It was just crazy! I couldn’t accept it and had a quarrel with officials. I was then banned from making films for six months. I’d signed so many contracts with producers, so I met them, put the money on the table and said I’d give it back unless they could afford to wait six months for me. Only one of the seven people took the money back,” Grace said.

She believes the decree was simply a case of the regime showing it could control actors’ professional lives.

Grace suspects there was also an element of jealousy. The regime’s first attempt at making a film, “The Beloved Land,” was a major flop.

A set from a film starring Grace Swe Zin Htaik, seated in the foreground, at the Motion Picture Museum.
A set from a film starring Grace Swe Zin Htaik, seated in the foreground, at the Motion Picture Museum.

Other decrees were issued, such as requiring both script approval and public screening approval, the latter of which was only valid for three years. However as the LA Times reported in April this year, “Censors could be influenced with tea money – and the industry remained relatively vibrant until the mid-1970s.”

Then in 1972, the socialist regime underwent a “reformation” and films were charged with the sole purpose of promoting the socialist agenda.

“This completely stopped our creative development, “Grace said.

Members of the film council were replaced by those appointed by the government, so rather than supporting the film industry, its goal was to control it.

Needless to say, the range of acceptable topics depicted narrowed – the entire industry was forced to march to the tune of Burmese socialism.

Wa Nu’s father began making films during the socialist era of 1970, but it wasn’t until the pro-democracy protests of 1988 that the most serious problems began. Time and again, his films were rejected because the music score and certain leading actors were deemed to contravene censorship rules.

Characters inspired by James Dean were common in action movies of the 1960s and 70s.
Characters inspired by James Dean were common in action movies of the 1960s and 70s.

Following the pro-democracy movement of 1988 (in which many directors and actors took part), the government’s grip on the film industry tightened further. The sanctions imposed by Western nations made it difficult to obtain film equipment and in a pedantic move, the government made its reluctance to provide raw films painfully clear (with the exception of those whose scripts passed the censorship board with flying colours).

“It was a genius move to start producing CD format movies,” Kyi Soe Tun said.

“We could bypass the need to for script approval and the videos were distributed widely – not just in Yangon but across the country.”

When the format changed to DVDs in the early 1990s, home theatre boomed, with 1000 DVD movies made on average each year. But the corollary was a steep decline in cinema goers – rather than forking out for tickets, an entire family could enjoy a film at a home for about US$0.50 – a fraction of the price of a cinema tickets.

Worse still, the increased popularity of pirated US, Chinese and Korean movies has driven the local film industry further into the doldrums.

Up until 1988, cinema halls were government owned. Although there is some discrepancy about the number of cinema halls that currently exist, it can’t be denied that their numbers in the decline.

Grace attributes this to attitudinal changes – in the past, people were more passionate about films, but she now feels that with land prices rocketing, many felt it financially wise to demolish the cinema halls and replace them with apartment blocks.

“There’s no guarantee of earning back the money invested into operating a cinema,” she said.

Grace estimates there are currently 100 cinemas in Myanmar, but less than 50 are operational.

“I’ve visited various cinemas outside Yangon. In Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, she saw a cinema being used as a warehouse to store seafood.

Other cinema hall owners are selling off the land in small plots to provide a form of inheritance to their grandchildren.

Another problem is that the Ministry of Information “says one thing one day and changes their mind the next. This puts people off investing,” Grace said.

Perhaps another disincentive is the declining quality of contemporary films, and the fact that in 2012, cinemas screened 70 percent imported content. Moreover, unlike Thailand and Cambodia, for example, no cinema in Myanmar offers surround sound. The seats are generally uncomfortable and the majority aren’t particularly clean.

Kyi Soe Tun said that the money-generating movies of today are the comedy and action genres, with a growing audience for horror films and “ghost movies.”

According to Grace, another pervasive feature of contemporary films is the influence of Korean culture, which is wildly popular in Myanmar.

“Nowadays there is an adaptation of Korean films – the storyline, the music and the dress.”

Thi Thi, 27, works as a guide at the Myanmar Motion Picture Museum.

“I don’t like political films – I prefer movies with a police chase, ones that are action based. But ghost films are my favourite,” she said. She said she believes that the romance genre still reigns supreme among teenage females.

An actor waiting for her cue as a nurse in the TV drama “Mandalay Forever” said, “Acting is my passion, that’s why I switched from modelling. I want to do it full-time so I can stop working at the mini-shop.” She currently earns about US$15 a day as a supporting actress. However when I asked the budding actor Su Sandi Win, 22, how modern day dramas compare with films of the past, she said, “I don’t know anything about old movies.”

Nurses in supporting roles wait for their cue. Mo Mo Myint Aung is pictured on the right.
Nurses in supporting roles wait for their cue. Mo Mo Myint Aung is pictured on the right.

Another lament is that the standards of professionalism are well below par of the past. Contracts fail to stipulate set working hours and other important terms, which means that the “money-making” actors are calling all the shots. Some will commit to no more than three shooting days per film.

“Producers have no right to complain and no contract terms to sue. This destroys the quality of production,” Grace said wistfully.

Another fundamental change is the role of directors.

“He used to be the king of the set!” Grace said of Kyi Soe Thun.

“People don’t care about pre and post production – yet so much money is spent on the set,” he added with a nod.

Yet despite the setbacks that have turned the industry upside down time and time again, dreams of a brighter future are anything but extinguished.

Discussions with the Ministry of Information to create a “film city” – akin to Universal Studios are underway and Grace is confident that results could be seen in the next couple of years. Myanmar currently has no film studios – houses are used an alternative, which is a far cry from the lavish sets Grace performed on in the 1970s and 1980s.

As the secretary of Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation’s international relations committee, she wants to send a message to people across the world on behalf of Myanmar’s film industry.

“Come and help us.”

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