Stroke of Genius
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, September 25, 2017


Stroke of Genius



A Canadian filmmaker gets a kick out of a Burmese sport where every player wins

A Burmese academic once observed: ‘‘No wonder our political culture is very antagonistic.  Look at the games we have in Burma, like kite fighting. Almost all games are designed to crush your opponent.’’

His hypothesis overlooks Burma’s national game chinlone, which is the subject of the award-winning documentary “Mystic Ball.” Its Canadian director Greg Hamilton says: ‘‘The most amazing thing about chinlone is that it is not competitive.  There is no opposing team, no scoring, no winners or losers.’’

Playing chinlone—also known outside Burma as sepak takraw or simply caneball—entails keeping a rattan ball in the air by footwork alone; no hands are allowed.  It is performed solo by chinlone experts, who are usually women, or is played by a team of two to six players who stand in a circle three or four feet apart. 

Chinlone is both a team and solo competitive sport.
While the aim of the game is to keep the ball in the air, its essence is to display exquisite kicks or “strokes.” Hamilton calls them “moves,” hinting at the lingering influence of his first love, martial arts. 

Team chinlone is a very democratic game.  Players have to take turns at performing solo, showing off their best strokes. The solo player, called “prince” or “princess,” is cheered on by the others.

A chance meeting between Hamilton and a Burmese chinlone player in a Toronto park in 1981 led him to his love affair with the ball.  He practiced chinlone in a haphazard way for several years, and by 1997 had gained enough ball control to take courses with a chinlone coach in Burma. 

He learnt that there are more than 200 “moves” to master in chinlone. Weik Zar Than, a senior player in his 70s who died a year before the film’s 2007 premiere, stressed the importance of aesthetics in chinlone—‘‘a stroke is beautiful only when it is executed in chinlone style wherein your head, legs and hands have to be in the proper places.’’

Similar rattan ball games exist, or have existed, under different names in most other Southeast Asian countries. Nonetheless, it is in Burma, a country relatively untouched by globalization, where chinlone is found in its most exotic and traditional form—a gentle, cooperative game of complex footwork enjoyed by young and old, male and female.

The origins of chinlone are a subject of dispute even among the Burmese.  Some believe the game is at least 1,500 years old, going back to the courts of the ancient Pyu in the seventh century AD.

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