Vol 12. No. 3, March 2004
Given that Burma’s movie industry is tightly directed by the government, suffers from a deficit of technical skills and technology—not to mention financing problems—it’s a small miracle anything gets produced at all.
By Aung Zaw
Aye Aye, in her 40s, does not bother to hide her dislike of made-in-Burma m ovies. "Burmese films are not natural, their themes are boring and they never change plots. I hate to watch them."
She prefers Hollywood movies. Other members of her family like the Chinese and Korean soap operas that air on state-run TV. "In fact," she said, "karaoke is ahead of the [Burmese] movie."
Many educated Burmese in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy that they stopped watching Burmese films many years ago.
Sein Tin, head of the Myanmar Motion Picture Association admitted to The Myanmar Times, a semi-official Rangoon newspaper, that the industry was delivering a defective product. "We are in doldrums," he was quoted. Sein Tin blamed the lack of sophisticated technology. Film critics in Rangoon ascribe the poor state of Burmese movie-making to a lack of creative freedom.
Burmese movies may not be highly regarded now, but the country has an extensive film history and has produced some outstanding and controversial work in the past.
The country’s first silent film, Myitta Nit Thuyar, (Love and Liquor) showed at Rangoon’s Cine’ma de Paris in November 1920 and heralded the beginning of the Burmese movie era. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, many Burmese-owned production houses opened in the capital.
The most prominent were A1, New Burma, British Burma, The Imperial, Bandoola, and Yan Gyi Aung. Local directors such as Nyi Pu, Sunny, Toke Kyi and Tin Pe quickly achieved fame.
Ngwe Pay Lo Maya (It Can’t Be Paid With Money), the first "talky" was directed by Toke Kyi in Bombay, India, and shown in 1932. Up through 1941 about 600 Burmese movies were produced. Most involved love stories, legends, the occult or the supernatural. Others were based on Buddhist tales or history.
The expansion of Burmese film-making coincided with the rise of the nationalist movement. Movies dealing with historical events did not normally adhere to the official British colonial view of the past.
In the early 1930s Sunny, also known as "Parrot U Sunny", set out to widen the scope of the debate. He started a production house, Parrot, which made films that highlighted social issues such as gambling and police corruption. British authorities carefully censored his movies. His 1936 offering Dou Daung Lan (Our Peacock Flag) was banned altogether.
In 1937 director Tin Maung of the A1 studio made Aung Thapyay (The Triumph of Thapyay) which dealt with the final days of King Thibaw. Burma’s last monarch, having been defeated in battle by the British, was exiled to India where he died an embittered man. However, few Burmese got to see it initially, as the colonial government of the time did not allow to the movie to play at theaters.
The same year, student leader U Nu, who later became Prime Minister, co-directed Boycotta, a film about the student-led struggle for independence. This production was permitted to be shown in cinemas. Other prominent student leaders Aung San and Htun Ohn acted in some scenes.
When the Japanese overran Rangoon on March 7, 1942, Burma’s film industry was forced to take an intermission. But film directors did not take a break—Tin Maung, Shwe Nyar Maung, Tin Pe, Shwe Ko, Tha Gaung and Ba Shin joined the Burma Independence Army.
The motion picture industry in Burma celebrated its silver anniversary in 1947—two years late (in 1945 the country was still recovering from World War II). Gen Aung San, who was assassinated later that year, spoke at the celebrations where he exhorted Burmese directors and actors "to serve the country with their talents." According to his comrades and biographers, Burma’s independence leader preferred dramas and comedies. Curiously, his favorite movie was reportedly the Hollywood saga Gone With the Wind.
After the country regained independence in 1948, film-making found a new range of themes. With Rangoon on the defensive from a communist insurgency and various ethnic rebellions, the industry and its stars were asked to play a role in unifying the nation.
When Rangoon was under siege by Karen rebels in 1949, directors rushed to document the battle for Insein. On the propaganda front, famous movie stars prepared refreshments and hauled rations for the troops. Some actors and actresses even took military training.
The rise of communism and the cold war in the region also impacted Burma’s film industry in 1950s.
Following the Chinese Kuomintang invasion of northeast Burma in the 1950s Pa Le Myat Ye (Tear of Pearl) was produced. The movie denounced imperialism and called for unity within the country. It also stressed the importance of the Tatmadaw, or armed forces.
Aside from the war and anti-imperialism themes, love stories, historical films, thrillers and stories dealing with the occult and the supernatural continued to be made. Perhaps 80 movies were released each year between 1950 and 1960.
The technical proficiency of production houses improved. Talented directors made a number of classic movies, some of which were translated into Chinese or Russian. Thu Kha, a renowned director now in his 90s, directed several acclaimed films. A number were distributed abroad. Perhaps his best-known was Bawa Thanthaya (The Life Cycle).
Burma inaugurated its own Academy Awards ceremony, modeled on the Hollywood version, in 1952. At the 2004 Awards, Minister of Information Maj-Gen Kyaw Hsan paid tribute to the nation-building role played by the industry. "Film artists and technicians joined the Burma Independence Army, formed to restore independence, and took part in driving out the colonialists and fascists," he said.
He tactfully demurred from mentioning the insurgent role played by other people from the industry who joined anti-Rangoon forces after Gen Ne Win’s 1962 coup.
Lead insurgent actress was Louisa Benson, a Jewish-Karen movie star who had twice been crowned Miss Burma. She married the commander of the Karen rebels’ 5th Brigade, Brig-Gen Lin Tin, soon after he agreed to a ceasefire with Rangoon in 1963 (Lin Tin had fallen out with the leftist Karen National United Party).
The marriage was an unlikely alliance—worthy of a movie in fact. Lin Tin had only a rudimentary education, was 16 years older than his wife and had something of a reputation as a hellraiser and a womanizer. Benson was born into a wealthy family, studied for a time in Boston and was a member of the Rangoon’s high-society crowd.
In 1965 Lin Tin was gunned down in Thaton, Mon State—ironically outside a movie theater. His 24-year-old widow led his 400-odd 5th Brigade troops, who were camped nearby, back to the jungle and back to hostilities. One of Rangoon’s most beautiful stars was, for a brief period, Burma’s most photogenic rebel commander. If Benson missed the excitement of the movie set, by 1965 there probably weren’t any roles in the Rangoon film world that she would have wanted to act in.
After the Burmese Socialist Program Party took control in 1962 the motion picture industry was told to "march to the Burmese Way to Socialism." The cinema halls and production houses were nationalized. Scripts were intensely scrutinized by censors before production was even approved. Movies were required to emphasize the struggles of workers and peasants much more strongly.
Ne Win’s socialist government paid little attention to the promotion and development of the film industry. With no privately-owned production houses, no artistic freedom and no skills development, the movie sector, as with the economy in general, went into reverse.
From 1989 a new government economic policy aimed at opening up the economy was gradually implemented. Cinemas were sold off to the private sector while new film production houses opened for business.
By the mid-1990s a private company, Mingalar Ltd, owned most of Rangoon’s and Mandalay’s best cinemas. In Rangoon the firm now has the Thamada, Taw Win, Naypyidaw and Mingalar cinemas; in Mandalay the Win Lite and Myo Ma theaters.
The sound quality and service at the venues has improved, but production houses complain about the virtual monopoly that Mingalar has over film distribution.
Among the production houses, the leaden hand of the regime is all too apparent. Last year 26 Burmese-made movies were released. But scripts must still pass the censors before a film can go into production. Movie stars that were actively involved in the democracy movement are banned from the screen. Aung Lwin (a member of the opposition National League for Democracy) and Tun Wai, both veteran actors were banned from appearing in movies. The films of Win Pe, a respected director who moved to the US in late 1990s and now works for Radio Free Asia’s Burma service, are no longer legally available.
Pro-government writers and film directors, by contrast, receive financial assistance and privileges for producing propaganda films. Film directors are asked to preserve national culture, character and "Myanmar" styles, to contribute to the flourishing of patriotism and Union Spirit and to broaden the horizons of the people.
The upcoming film about the Salone, or sea-gypsies, was financed by the government (see box story). The movie industry calls these productions "policy kar" or policy movies. If a movie is financed by a department of the spook apparatus it is comes under the genre "htauk lan yay kar" or intelligence movie (not to be confused with an intelligent movie). Film-makers Saytaman, Maha Media and the Myat Mingalar Company are financially supported by the government, according to Rangoon film critics.
In the mid-1990s Myat Mingalar Ltd was set up by the then Minister of Railways Win Sein. One of its first films was Thu Kyun Ma Khan Byi (Never Shall We Be Enslaved), directed by Dr Myo Thant Tin based on a novel by Phone Naing. The Minister of Railways donated 300 million kyat to the production. It was probably not a complete coincidence that Thu Kyun Ma Khan Byi won seven academy awards in 1996.
Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt usually attends the annual Burmese Academy Awards ceremony. He also hosts special dinner party for Academy award winners. His favorite actor, Nyunt Win, has won Academy Awards on five occasions.
"The Academy [awards] keeps coming back to the same people and it is now predictable [who will win]," said a critic.
"They [favored movie stars] are nicely treated," a Rangoon journalist concurred.
This year, Bagyi Soe Moe’s film Ngar Thutabar Yaukkyar Meinma (Men and Women are All Human) won seven academy awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress.
The movie is about an HIV/AIDS carrier who accidentally transmits the virus to his daughter’s friend. This is significant—HIV/AIDS movie scripts did not even pass the censorship board in the past. This is the first time a film on the subject has received Academy awards.
It also happens to be in line with government policy. Gen Khin Nyunt now publicly backs AIDS awareness campaigning.
Most recently, the Prime Minister’s seven-point road map has been put on the agenda. Minister of Information Maj-Gen Kyaw Hsan told the 2004 Academy Awards audience that he believed all those in the Burmese movie world would actively take part in the implementation of the seven-step roadmap for the emergence of a new "genuine democracy." Are we to expect a movie on The Traitorous Cohorts Who Returned from the Cold? Or perhaps From Jungle to Disciplined Democracy?
Although there have been improvements in Burma’s motion picture industry since 1988, it remains in a bad way. Strongly authoritarian environments rarely engender brilliance. In many ways the state of Burma’s movie industry reflects the reality of the country much more closely than do its films.