Saturday, July 31, 2010

Film festivals of a new kind

Let it be known to all you cinephiles in Thailand and Laos, or anybody who might be headed in that direction, there are two inaugural film fests taking place very soon. Next week, in fact, from August 6-8, begins Bangkok IndieFest. The motley mix of independent, international programming for this first-time film fest will be screened at Bangkok's HOF Art Gallery. This may be the initial run for BKK IndieFest, but the organizers are veterans of the trade, having held successful festivals for three years and counting over at Cambofest, in Phnom Penh and Kampot, Cambodia. Their inaugural Bangkok version is shaping up to be an event worth making time for.

Across the border and few months down the road, the Luang Prabang Film Festival is set to run from December 4th to the 11th in the picturesque Laotian city it's named for. This is an exciting prospect for little Luang Prabang, which is notoriously lacking in entertainment options once the sun goes down. There's no doubt that the ancient capital of northern Laos will benefit enormously from this dose of the silver screen.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of their organizers, neither Bangkok IndieFest nor the Luang Prabang Film Fest will be screening films in any classic stand-alone theaters this year. But maybe - just maybe - if enough people turn out to get their fix of film this time around, next year's festivities will be held in one of the few remaining stand-alone theaters in Bangkok or Luang Prabang. A lurid possibility which I hope to see happen more often at local film fests.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Myoma and Shwe Gon cinemas - Yangon, Myanmar

We've reached the end of the line here, ladies and gentlemen. Cinema Row pulls into its digitized terminus with a dirty double feature of the Myoma and Shwe Gon cinemas. As far as the naked eye can tell, these two are at the nexus of Cinema Row and skid row. Past follies into such nefarious worlds have left a permanent imprint. When in doubt, keep out! Doubt prevailed.

Right to left, Myoma and Shwe Gon - the dingiest two along Cinema Row.

Regrettably, outside of their drab appearances, much about the Myoma and Shwe Gon cinemas remains undisclosed. The same can be said for most of Cinema Row, for that matter. In hindsight, hiring a guide would have been a wise move, but I stubbornly went about my data collection without one. I figured I'd eventually be able to piece together enough info in my usual solo manner. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What I got was bits of hearsay and very little raw data.

I did hear one claim, however, that the Myoma and Shwe Gon - twins apparently - were built sometime in the late 1940's or early 50's. The post World War II period was a watershed for cinema construction in Myanmar (then known as Burma). More broadly it was a time of growing nationalism and political restructuring in the wake of war. With the promise of change all around, the wide communications platform available via cinema halls would have been viewed as critical to the new leadership, intent, as they were, on engineering a new kind of society. The result was a countrywide explosion of cinema building starting at the end of the war and lasting into the early 60's, when the military seized power and nationalized all cinema halls.

The Myoma's ticket window and front entrance, prior to opening.

Underneath the Myoma's portico: "Om - The Ultimate Power," dating to 2003, was playing there at the time. Experience has taught me to be mindful of theaters screening out of date stuff.

Half in, half out of the Shwe Gon Cinema

Passers by and the Shwe Gon

Three frilly-dressed women standing in front of the Shwe Gon Cinema. The welcoming committee or what?

Shwe Gon ticket window

Having done most of my movie theater research in Thailand, where the high-standard movie theater era didn't really come to fruition until the mid-1960's, it's easy to make historical comparisons with the movie theater geography in neighboring Myanmar. Many of the theaters I encountered in the latter were built in the 1920's, late 1940's and throughout the 1950's. The Great Depression hit in the 1930's, accounting for that theater building lull. Then Burma was embroiled in World War II, so not much happened movie theater-wise in the early 40's, either. In the post-war years, however, the economy rebounded and theaters began popping up again. Prospects were golden until 1962 when the military took the helm of government, causing what would be a long halt on theater building, as economic nationalization stunted private investment and economic aid efforts from superpower America were completely stymied.

Across the eastern border, on the other hand, Thailand began its first 5 year economic development plan in 1961, in conjunction with billions of dollars worth of economic and military assistance from the US to combat regional communism. The flow of dollars triggered a movie theater building frenzy which peaked in the late 1960's and 70's. So just as things died down in Burma (1962), movie theaters started sprouting up like wild flowers in Thailand (1961).

For your devoted Projectionist, this is my own little way of conceptualizing Burmese vs. Thai development history through the lovely, lovely framework of movie theaters.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Su Htoo Pan Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

When Burmese writer/political critic Ludu U Hla was locked away in the Rangoon Central Jail back in the 1950's, for the heinous crime of authoring seditious literature, he made the most of his prison sentence by conducting interviews among his fellow inmates. The result was "The Caged Ones" - a collection of narratives detailing the inmates' road to incarceration. It's a simple read, but no less gripping for its casual accounts of how the young and vulnerable can turn illicitous given bleak circumstances or events.

Law breaking, however, wasn't the only common denominator linking these young misfortunates. In just about every missive in the book, the respective inmate mentions a relationship he had to Yangon's cinemas before being locked up, giving the impression that city's movie halls were magnets for the criminally inclined. In the "The Orphan," for instance, the young protagonist admits to dropping out of school and then "stealing a train ride to Rangoon, where I eked out a living by filching things from shops and people." Having no permanent residence "I would sleep where ever I could find shelter, which was usually near the cinema halls."

Another story has the prisoner recalling "carefree afternoons and evenings idling around the cinema halls, looking at the various posters. When the lights were turned off after the last show we crept into the dark corners to sleep."

Maybe more vagrant than down right criminal, the connections between the cinema halls and the jailed are nonetheless ubiquitous throughout the book.

Busy Cinema Row on Bogyoke Aung San Road...

...home to the criminally vagrant?

Some parts of Cinema Row haven't changes much since Ludu U Hla's days, apparently. The Su Htoo Pan Cinema very well may have been one of the cinemas described in "The Caged Ones." In any case, loafers warmly welcomed.

Su Htoo Pan translates to "The Highest Wish."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tricks of the trade

Wee Chiang Mai offers two movie theater options. You can go to the locally-owned Vista Gad Suan Kaew 7, or the nationwide chain, Major Cineplex. Never mind that they're both in chintzy shopping malls, the bane of this web-site's content. That's irrelevant to the issue of the day. Today's complaint is how the latter successfully squeezes movie-goers here in Chiang Mai and throughout Thailand.

As a regular movie-goer, I am devoted to Vista for two reasons: they're within walking distance of the abode and, the point of this post, the viewing aspect ratio in their auditoriums is much better than at Major. The latter has a bum tendency to build its theater auditoriums wider than they are long, so that spectators are forced to scan the screen from side to side if they want to see the entire picture. A major pain in the neck, I tell ya! The only seats offering palpable aspect ratios are the last two rows at the back, seats which conveniently cost about one-fourth more than the already inflated standard. In other words, we've been duped! We have to pay a premium to enjoy a viewing aspect ratio that a well designed theater has for all seats, save for those way up front. But Thai movie fans are not the only ones getting swindled by a greedy theater chain.

Author Luke Holland has written a piece ("One man's rant: the soaring cost of going to the cinema") about how theater chains around the world are very slyly employing similar price gouging schemes; ones which entail actually detracting from the cinema experience rather then improving it. He cynically calls such practices 'Less-Product-For-The-Same-Price-Or-More-Product-For-A-Premium-Even-Though-You-Didn't-Ever-Want-It' (L.P.F.T.S.P.O.M.P.F.A.P.E.T.Y.D.E.W.I, ©). Here's an excerpt:

"The other day my missus and I decided to go and see Russell Brand being paid handsomely to pretend to be Russell Brand, but in a film, and we bought our tickets, a tub of popcorn and a fizzy beverage. Didn't see much change from twenty-five pounds, there, but no worry.

Then we go into the cinema and sit down, only to find the drinks holders have been surreptitiously removed since our last visit. Not only this, but either my legs are prone to spontaneous structural erections or there is decidedly less legroom than when I last visited not two weeks ago. It didn't take long to find out why.

The three rows in front of us have been refitted. "VIP SEATING", a sign says. Huge chairs that each take up the space of two original pauper stools, soft leather armrests with two drinks holders and a slot for popcorn. And, oh yes, there's all my legroom, right there billowing about in huge, superfluous clouds, as each and every one of these seats remained unoccupied for the entire duration of the film, while all the cheap seats (now sans legroom and holders) were filled with an increasingly exasperated gaggle of irate Northeners who'd just spilled another glug of icy Sprite right across their genitals.

Read the entire article here...

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Thwin Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

Glowing Thwin

Cinema Row - accented by the well-lit Thwin Cinema - looking fairly melancholy after dark.

After dark, the Thwin Cinema's humming florescence casts a reassuring glow down a blackened Cinema Row. Its neighbors to the east, notably shabbier, veiled by the night, take on a slightly sinister appearance; places that seem to offer cinema-plus. But thanks to its ample illumination, the Thwin has avoided an aesthetic of vagrancy. And its function matches its look, to boot.

Movie billboard on the Thwin Cinema's facade.

Under the portico by night

The Thwin owes its high standards to the company that runs it, the Mingalar Group - one of the country's biggest property developers and film production companies. Mingalar leases the Thwin from the government along with another 4 theaters in Yangon and two more in Madalay. For all practical purposes, Mingalar's theaters are the finest in the country, outfitted with the best projection and audio equipment, while attentively maintained in the looks and comforts department. Things are no different at the Thwin. It is easily the cleanest and most up-to-date of the Cinema Row sextet. Unfortunately, it only screens Myanmar-made comedies and romances, which are a bit difficult to watch.

The Thwin Cinema, with it's nearly identical next door neighbor the Su Htoo Pan

Looking right to left: the Thwin, the Su Htoo Pan, the Myoma and the Shwe Gon

Art-deco facade of the Thwin. Date of construction is unknown.

Ticket window and front entrance.

Mingalar Theaters movie guide, above the Thwin's ticket booth.

Travesty of travesties and nagging source of gloom for your Projectionist; bane of my entire trip to Myanmar, in fact, was Mingalar's no-photo policy regarding its theaters - exterior shots included. This obstacle dampened my spirits more than the monsooning skies did. Every time I'd approach a Mingalar-run theater with camera in hand, an admonishing guard would bolt from the lobby to shoo me away. I tried taking my case to theater management, but they wouldn't give me the time of day, only the line "we have no authority at this level." When that failed I went on a charm offensive to the Ministry of Information's Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise (MMPE), the state agency which owns most of the country's theaters. The managing director there seemed sympathetic to my cause and asked me to send him a written project proposal which he would use to try to leverage my request. But in the end it amounted to nil. "Mingalar is a private company," he reminded me. "We have no authority to make them bend their rules for you. Sorry." Yeah, well I bet if I was the son of a general...

But the trip to the MMPE office wasn't a complete let down. At least I got a little amusement out of it all. While waiting in the managing directors office I spotted a white board hanging on the wall. Scrawled across it in black ink was written "send films to Pyongyang for North Korean Film Festival." Imagine that combination! Two powerhouses of political and artistic repression saddling up for a movie mixer. Which country do you think can make the best film about the benevolence of their respective supreme leader?

Anyway, what you see here of the Thwin Cinema was taken by stealth. Sorry if the selection is a little bit lackluster.

To Mingalar, please forgive me, but I do it in the name of promoting your venues and nothing else.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Beyin (King) Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

Moving eastwards along Bogyoke Aung San Road, the next gem in the Cinema Row sextet is the verdant Beyin Cinema, also known as the King. Local recollectors seemed to think that the King, despite its more contemporary looks, is actually older than the Waziya Cinema next door. With confirmation pending, I'll resort to conjecture and say this: it is the elder of the two, but at some point it got a makeover and now looks the younger.

Besides being green, the King Cinema stands out among the denizens of Cinema Row for being the only one that does not face on to Bogyoke Aung San Road. It's front entrance, as depicted in the above photo, faces east onto 35th Street. The point being, you know that you're turning a corner when you go to the King. *Ba-dum ching*

Beyin, in some funky 3D Burmese cut-out letters bolted to the top of the theater.


Vendors prepare their wares in front of the King Cinema's 35th Street entrance.

Welcome to the King

Billboards and checker boards.

Filmfair at the King seemed to be exclusively Indian. During most of my Yangon stay, the movie Billu Barber held top billing there. Bollywood, ever prolific in its annual output, supplies Myanmar movie theaters with a regular stream of silver screen entertainment, amounting to the second most widely exhibited national cinema in the country after domestic productions. Curiously, all imported movies - Bollywood, Hollywood or otherwise - are prohibited from being dubbed into Burmese or given Burmese subtitles. For Myanmar's movie-going public this can be a bit of a drag. Plot lines can be lost and dialogue painfully dull for those without an ear for the movie's language of origin. The three English language films I watched were notable for the casual chatter that broke out among spectators once the on-screen action turned to dialogue. It was like a license to speak, a clear indication that most viewers either didn't understand the English soundtrack, or weren't interested in trying to follow along. But the lack of translation is not without reason.

The authorities realize that if foreign imports were given the Burmese treatment then home grown productions would suffer at the box-office. Producers would see smaller returns on their investments and the local industry would wither in the face of more Burmese-friendly imports. Instead, the domestic fair is bolstered by a protectionist policy aimed at funneling movie-goers in its direction, while avoiding the need to increase production costs. This works against local movie fans, in a total sense. For one, they can't fully follow the imported stuff without foreign language ability. More critically, however, if local films were made with a mind to compete on an equal basis with the technically more proficient films of India or the US the likely result would be a raised bar across the field. Local producers would be forced to dole out more money, attracting a wider range of domestic talent, and presumably resulting in higher quality films. Theaters would be full based on the merits of the movie, not just because of the familiar language. But by all accounts, movie making in Myanmar is a murky process to begin with. Producers aim not for quality, but for quantity on as little investment as possible. In the end, the deprivation really shows!

DVD stalls line Bogyoke Aung San Road along the outside wall of the King Cinema, adding to the movie mania of Cinema Row. But looking past that, the billboard on the sidewalk serves a dual purpose: an advertisement for the current movie and a shield for the theater's diesel generator. All theaters in Myanmar have their own generators outside in case the local electricity supply gets shut off - a regular occurrence.

I would have liked to bring you a more dynamic series of shots of the Beyin/King Cinema. It's an interesting place. But management was not so thrilled to have a camera man poking around the premises. Interior shots were not allowed at all. Shooting the exterior was done sporadically and surreptitiously, as some vendors working the theater's perimeter were weary about having their goods committed to film.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Old theaters back in business in the US heartland. Why not Thailand?

Here's a little inspiration for all you movie theater enthusiasts out there: a New York Times article about the revival of main street movie theaters in the American mid-west. The following excerpt pretty much sums up my own views on the matter:
"To Tim Kennedy, a professor of landscape architecture who has traveled across the state [of North Dakota] to survey little theaters for a book, the communal will of rural towns that keep theaters going represents “buildings as social capital,” forged “outside the franchise cinemas and their ubiquitous presence at the malls....”

As anybody who's followed this blog knows, there are hundreds of old movie theaters across Thailand just sitting vacant, or being used in ways that pale in comparison to their original cinematic designs. Wouldn't it be nice to see some of them put back in commission?

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Waziya Cinema AKA The Excelsior - Yangon, Myanmar PART 2 of 2

Night view

By most accounts, the Waziya Cinema dates to the late 1920's. It began its life as a live theater, but was transformed into a cinema hall as the film medium grew in popularity. Myanmar, then the British colony of Burma, had one of the most prolific and well developed movie industries in Southeast Asia during the first half of the 20th century. Led by production companies like A1, New Burma and British Burma, the domestic filmfare rivaled British and American imports in popularity for years. The result of this cinephilic culture was dozens of highly crafted movie theaters throughout the country.

Entrance to stall (lower level) seating

Looking down over the lobby

Lobby cards

Until 1962, when all the country's cinema halls were nationalized under the auspices of the still-reigning military government, the Waziya went under the name of the Excelsior Cinema. Such name changing was common practice following the ascent of the military, with many entities formerly containing names of English origin going native. The aim was to foster a stronger national identity after a century of British rule.

On a side note, the government of Myanmar is now in the process of selling off its movie theater holdings to private investors. Any takers?

Stairs to balcony seating

The mirrored landing
Ticket girl for lodge (balcony) seating. The arched widows along the corridor are open air.

Upper front corridor, with arched doorways leading to a patio.

Spiral staircase leading to the projection room
Many older movie theaters in Burma have this feature: a patio on top of the portico. It makes for a good place to catch a smoke or spit some betel juice before or during a film.

The patio

Ionic capital on the second level exterior

Striking, isn't it? The Waziya is the only movie theater I've come across in Southeast Asia done in the Beaux arts style (if my architectural knowledge isn't off). And as an added bonus, both the interior and exterior retain the majority of its original character - fixtures and all. Even the auditorium was noteworthy, looking as if it hasn't changed much in the 80-plus years of the building's existence. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to shoot it, but I can tell you this: it's pretty old school. The screen is set back behind a stage, betraying the building's former use as a live performance hall. The roof is supported by tall pillars rising up from the balcony sides. What a sight! It's easy to imagine silent films playing there in its early years.

So if you're in Yangon, check out the Waziya/Excelsior Cinema. Support a well run business and classic old building. It's at the corner of Bogyoke Aung San Road and 33rd Street. If you go during any day time show, you can buy your ticket from the lady below. She's friendly and will help you select the best seat in the house. Tickets, by the way, range from 40 to 70 cents a pop.