Celluloid Disillusions
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Celluloid Disillusions

By Aung Zaw MARCH, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.3


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.

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.

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