Saturday, August 5, 2017

The King's Cinema - Mawlamyiane, Mon State, Myanmar PART 2

It took a bit finagling to finally gain access to the King's Cinema. Several shop keepers that I inquired with in town suggested talking to the people who run the noodle shop next door to it. "The two are owned by the same family," they'd say. "They can help you." 

My first attempt at talking to the noodle shop proprietors was met with cold dismissiveness. The shop was nearly full with what seemed like regulars, all of whom turned their attention from their steaming bowls to the disjointed negotiations being had between the owners and the disheveled foreigner muttering in incoherent Burmese about movie theaters and taking pictures.

After a few minutes of pleading my case to no avail I departed, bitter, resigned to the fact that I would never see the interior of this fortress movie hall - my primary reason for being in Mawlamyiane. 

A few hour later, though, I got a second wind. If I didn't give it another go I'd knew I'd be kicking myself down the road, so I strode back down to the noodle shop hoping for the best but expecting the worst. 

Other than the owners the shop was empty, which I figured would work in my favor. Any fears the owners may have had of losing face in front of their customers by admitting a complete stranger to their rundown heirloom was moot. There would also be ample time for me to make my case to them. I took the trusty camera out, inserted a memory card and scrolled through the thousands of photos I'd taken of theaters throughout Myanmar, naming each one and its location as I went. Being old movie theater hands, they were familiar with most of what I showed them, and nodded in recognition of their former cohorts.

Judging that I meant no harm, they acquiesced, calling for one of their young staff to lead me into the cinema next door. I bowed and thanked them profusely before being escorted into the abandoned hulk.

View in the vestibule area, with one of two ticket booths visible in the background. 

My escort pulled open the steel gates to the theater and we slipped inside, passing through a vestibule before ascending a creaky wooden staircase to the projection room. The young man knocked on the closed door and called out in Burmese. The door opened just enough for the face of an elderly man to be seen, his eyes flitting between myself and the escort. A moment later he rushed out, buttoning up an over-sized collared shirt as he whisked past me. The King's resident caretaker, I thought. 

"Come, come," he beckoned, gesturing for me to follow as he descended the creaky wooden stairs. The escort departed, leaving the older man in charge. We walked a corridor along the perimeter of the auditorium until he reached a set of folding wooden doors which he flung ajar, allowing tropical sunlight to illuminate the auditorium. 

A simple proscenium frames the screen of the King's Cinema.

The ornament at the top of the screen is a metal cutout of the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise logo. Below it is the letters M.M.P.E.

Floral motifs on the facing of the balcony. For a brief time after it closed in the mid-2000's the theater was used as a motorcycle parking lot, hence all the old teak bench seats piled up beneath the balcony. But that didn't last. 

U Than Nainge is indeed the resident caretaker of the King's Cinema. He sleeps on a bed in a room just beside the projection booth. In former times, that room served as the theater's office, where all the accounting, programming and day to day business of the theater was carried out. 

Resident cinema caretakers are a common occurrence in Myanmar's ageing movie houses. These live-in employees often play multiple roles, including basic maintenance, janitor and watchman at night. A good number of them often serve as projectionists, as well. 

In the case of U Than Nainge, his attachment to the theater goes beyond the casual intimacy of the resident caretaker. His mother constructed the theater back in 1945 and his family, including the folks selling noodles next door, hold the title to this day.  

View from the teak wood balcony.

U Than Nainge standing in one of several old offices near the projection booth. Like much of Myanmar, this room has museum-like qualities.

Flipping through old print material stashed away in an old cabinet. 

I spent an hour or so trying real hard to elicit stories from U Than Nainge, but his English was only slightly better than my Burmese, which is awful. What I got was a bunch of truncated stories and incomplete factoids about what was clearly a voluminous career in the movie theater business. Such is research without a translator on hand. I do a lot better in Thailand, where I speak the local. 

Short of boring you with useless half-facts that I may have accurately recorded, I'll leave you with this: hope springs eternal. There is a bit of interest, vis a vis an unnamed party, in the purchasing and refurbishing of this classic old movie hall. 

Until then, Mon State can lay claim to the most eye catching abandoned movie theater in all of Myanmar.