Digital Killed the Celluloid Star
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
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COVER STORY

Digital Killed the Celluloid Star


By Min Zin MARCH, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.3


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Burma’s film industry has lagged behind that of its neighbors as a result of outdated technology, government censorship, hackneyed screenwriting and mediocre acting. But a humble piece of plastic may soon change all that: the DVD. The auction begins. Items confiscated from illicit drug factories are now on sale. Making loud noises and elbowing one another aside, the buyers vie for the best deals. Soon everything is sold except an old jeep at the front of the auction hall. Four drowsy men in the crowd start bidding on the vehicle. Its initial price is 20 million kyat but soon the bids leap to 200 million. No one but the four men dare to join the bidding for that dusty, exceptionally expensive jeep. Suddenly a man’s voice is heard from behind the crowd. "Wait a moment," it says, "I’d like to buy the whole auction and everybody attending it." Everyone is shocked. But one attendee responds, "All right. What’s our price? And yours?" "It all depends on how qualified you are," replies the stranger, sauntering down the aisle. Two of the four bidders on the jeep rise from their seats. Then a fight breaks out. Every buyer except the four is an agent in the stranger’s employ. The electricity is cut. Gunshots are heard. When the lights go up, many gang masters have been caught but others have escaped. The main fugitive on the loose is named Ponaka, a gangster who peddles methamphetamine pills. "Is it a crime to bid for an old jeep?" asks one villain. Named Soe Aung, the agent smiles and scratches the dusty jeep with a coin, thus revealing that the jeep is made of gold. Of course the whole auction was just a set-up, orchestrated to catch these men of the dark. CUT! The above is a preview of the opening scene of the James Bond-esque DVD now being shot by Maung Myo Min (Yintwin Phyit), perhaps Burma’s most popular film director. As an increasing number of people complain about Burmese films—their lack of sophistication, their cliched themes, stories and characters—Maung Myo Min says he wants to break new ground, to depart from the stereotypes in every way. Some of the movie’s scenes are shot on an island. Others will contain underwater fight scenes—a first in Burmese film history. Viewers will be treated to the sight of bullets halting in mid-air, just as in the seminal Hollywood film The Matrix. "I’d like to challenge those who say that we don’t want to watch Burmese movies," says Maung Myo Min. "Watch this. Be involved in it. Be seduced and overwhelmed by it. But do not demand explanation. The story is based on fantasy." Maung Myo Min’s challenge has become plausible only since the middle of 2003 when Burma’s film industry entered a new era: that of the DVD. The new technology has created an unprecedented opportunity, as discs can now be shown at cinemas, where films alone were presented before. The result may be a resurgence of Burma’s film industry, which has been economically stagnant for several years and has lagged behind the industries of neighboring countries. Despite ongoing criticism of film quality and the government’s severe censorship, the market in DVDs has become increasingly competitive. Burmese moviegoers in the city as well as the provinces are turning to the discs to slake their thirst for entertainment. "With this new DVD trend thriving," says a sanguine Maung Myo Min, "we now have a chance to breakthrough in the movie industry, at least with regard to technical creativity. We can unleash our imaginations." Before DVDs, Burmese directors often used 50-year-old cameras, and the projectors in cinemas were sub-standard. As a result, image quality was poor, the films shaky and blurry. Viewers could also expect noise pollution as part of the package. But in his action DVD, Maung Myo Min employs highly sophisticated computer-generated special effects, techno trickery, digital images and so on. Burmese films had mono sound, but DVDs are stereo and make use of Dolby audio technology. The improvement encourages directors like Maung Myo Min to incorporate the power of background music and movie songs, which in most cases, had previously been mere renditions of popular but unoriginal music. More importantly, DVDs reduce production costs drastically. An experienced manager of a movie production company, who asked not to be named, explains: "Four hundred feet of film is just enough for a long shot of four and a half minutes, and it costs over 100,000 kyat (about US $120). But using DVD, a 30-minute shot costs only 3,000 kyat." DVDs also reduce shooting costs, as a DVD camera is much more portable than a film camera. According to a report by the Rangoon-based business magazine Living Color, DVDs promise to revitalize suburban cinemas, which suffered a serious business crisis for some years.


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