Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Shwe Hintha Cinema - Bago, Myanmar

Eleven days of negotiating Yagon's cracked and crowded sidewalks had taken its toll. I was in dire need of some elbow room and a change of pace. With the lion's share of the city's cinemas already consigned to immortality, including all the most important ones, it was time to push on. The monsoons, you see, saturate coastal Myanmar before anywhere else, coming in from the south and west, then gradually moving northwards through the river valleys separating the mountains. Sticking to the delta cities as originally planned would guarantee lousy weather and fewer chances to do what I came for. To the north, I plotted, away from the never ending rain, en route to fairer skies. First stop, the city of Bago, which, it should be noted, at just sixty kilometers up-river from Yangon, still wasn't far enough north to avoid a drenching.

Rain, however punishing, played no part in dampening my spirits after finding Bago's oldest standing movie theater, the Shwe Hintha. A time-worn relic in the heart of a town that time forgot. Once off the country's main north-south highway, which cuts through Bago like asphalt lightening, thundering trucks unlimited, the town is a complete time capsule; a window into the past. You feel like you're in British Burmah, with an "h" at the end.

The Shwe Hintha is one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture applied to a movie theater I've found to date, albeit with a distinctly Southeast Asian flare. Built in 1928, it came into being at the height of the Art Deco movement. Located at one of Bago's busiest commercial intersections, just a block from the British built-train station, the Shwe Hintha must have been a gleaming symbol of the Roaring 20's wealth and prosperity when it opened. Today the street that it stands on is lined with open-air tea houses, where I spent at least an hour per day people watching and jotting down notes. Most of the tea shops were broadcasting the World Cup on TV, adding an extra dose of life to an already bustling part of town.

Various streetscapes of the Shwe Hintha Cinema.

Left exterior of the Shwe Hintha Cinema, with several exit doors leading from the auditorium. The right exterior, in contrast, contains 3 or 4 retail spaces.

Plaster bas relief of a golden Brahminy Duck above the main entrance. Above the duck it says "Shwe Hintha," below it says "Ashin' myin yo-shin yon," or "Quality Cinema."

Shwe Hintha translates to "Golden Brahminy Duck," a name chosen in homage to the legendary origins of Bago (which I'll come to in a minute). The town actually has a long and regal history, serving as capital of an independent Mon kingdom known as Hanthawaddy ("Hantha" as in "Hintha" as in "Shwe Hintha") until the Burmans captured it in the 16th century, briefly making it the capital of their own empire. Apparently the Bago River used to be a tidal one, meaning that water levels would rise high enough that large vessels were able to navigate it from the Gulf of Martaban, hence making Bago a viable port for the long distance sea trade. The river has since changed course, forever changing the fortunes of this once important city.

As for the name, legend has it that a Mon prince was traveling through the region when he witnessed a male Brahminy Duck sitting on a tiny mound of land in what was then the sea. In an act of unprecedented chivalry, the male duck supported a female duck on his back as the tidal water rose. Taking this as an auspicious sign, the Mon prince predicted that a city would some day rise from where the two ducks were seen mucking around. Twelve hundred years later, I'm photographing the Golden Duck Cinema.

Waiting on the steps

The yellow building across from the theater was built for a British merchant or colonial official.

The manager sitting in the lobby before showtime.

Lobby and ticket window

A lucky toddler gets to watch a movie

Big sister and little brother inspect movie posters.

Buying tickets

The ticket seller stamps the date on each ticket

Folding wooden doors at the entrance to the auditorium

Movies in Shwe Hintha Cinema are projected from an LCD projector set up in the middle aisle. A second projector is suspended from a pole attached to the balcony. The vast majority of Myanmar's cinema halls use LCD projectors instead of film. Most domestic movies are shot on digital video to cut down production costs.

The combination of stimulating location and old school charms made the Shwe Hintha Cinema one of my all time favorite movie theaters. I spent many hours getting to know it and the surrounding neighborhood. A major point of interest for me was to see how much of a community venue it really is, as evidenced by the fact that almost everybody who came arrived on foot or bicycle.

After 82 years the Shwe Hintha is still bringing joy to Bagoans.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Never cry wolf

A few days ago I posted a link to a Bangkok Post article which seemed to indicate that the charred remnants of the Siam Theater would be getting some renovation money from landlord Chulalongkorn University. Unfortunately that's not going to be happening. Apparently the entire section of Siam Square between sois 3 and 4 was known as Siam Theater. 270 million out of 1 billion baht will be used to renovate that particular area, but not the theater itself. A shopping mall will rise in its place. Such creative geniuses those Bangkok city planners are!

On a more inspirational note, here's a New York Times article about a city in India, Pondicherry, which has succeeded in preserving large sections of its old neighborhoods in the face of often careless redevelopment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Thamada Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

The Gilded Cesspool - Yangon - is dubbed so for simple reasons: gilded because of the numerous shimmering gold pagodas which dot the landscape. In fact, the city's architectural repertoire in general warrants the twinkly connotation of things gilt. Diamonds and pearls omitted. Above the business of the street stand many buildings worth looking at if you can take your eyes off where you step. Down there, at toe level, where the spilled gutter mingles with the pavement, where you mind your stride for fear of being eaten by the street, that's the cesspool. The Gilded Cesspool.

Given this duality, and the citywide feeling of structural decay, there are few places that can qualify as "world class." Here is one of them. Yes, of course, it's a movie theater:

Ladies and gentlemen, Mingalar Group's crown jewel and the cinematic pride of the country, the Thamada Cinema.

A mother-daughter hawker team set up shop beside the Thamada

The 43 bus barrels past the Thamada Cinema on the way to downtown.

During the course of my travels around Myanmar I found theaters which I admired on multiple levels, some even more than the grand Thamada. Ones which, thanks to some endearing trait or another, made me think "well gee whiz, isn't this a relic worth holding on to." A handful of those come to mind. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, the Thamada is in a class of its own. It is the begin all and end all of Myanmar movie theaters, a structure which should be showcased for the world to see, on par with the Shwedagon Pagoda, Mandalay Palace and the myriad temples of dust-strewn Pagan. That is to say, a national treasure.

Movie poster on the curved front wall of the international style Thamada.

translates to "president" in English. In 1950, when the Thamada burst into the ranks of Yangon's movie theater elite, a name like that would have held a certain amount of political zeal. Despite the emergence of ethnic factionalism, things were looking promising after the casting off of more than sixty years of humiliating British-colonial rule. Myanmar, then Burma, was coming out of World War II badly damaged, but ready to move forward. Hopes were high that the country would enter the world stage, find its wings and soar to new heights via state-driven industrialization policies, the likes of which were being pursued across post-colonial Southeast Asia. A building like the Thamada, then, embodied the spirit of the times. This was the new Burma, after all, not the medieval one nor the one subdued by foreign powers. The nation's capital yearned for a movie theater which could represent the progressive outlook of a burgeoning modern society. Sleek international style architecture was employed to achieve this end.

As time passed, the hopes of a society gradually gave way to stagnation. But through it all the Thamada Cinema has prevailed. That's thanks to the the Mingalar Group, who, aside from some apparently very strong political connections, has gone all out to keep the Thamada in pristine condition, with seemingly all its original bells and whistles, plus the necessary technological updates.

My debut visit to the Thamada was an event that's forever branded into my memory. Yangon was being battered by one of its notorious electrical storms and all the hundreds of Thamada movie-goers for the 12:30 show crammed into the lobby for shelter. In front of the theater, Alaungpaya Pagoda Road swelled to the depths of a small creek as rainwater raced towards lower ground. We, the high and dry anticipants of film, stood, sat and squatted placidly within the high-modern opulence of interior Thamada, mesmerized by the violent weather outside. Scored of peaceful faces, young and old, but mostly young, crowded this elegant waiting space. The freestanding staircase was full of sitters, leaving only a narrow path to the upper lobby, where dozens more lounged in meditative silence. The unfinished black granite walls, softly curved, and speckled concrete floors, enhanced by the the human form at ease throughout, made for a divine spectacle.

When the doors to the auditorium finally opened, we were funneled through a dark corridor, curving in such a way that the room's interior could not be seen until we had entered completely. Once inside, the auditorium expanded circularly, more like an opera house than a movie theater, or a four-story flying saucer. My assigned seat was up in the balcony with the hoi oligoi from where we looked down our noses at the plebs below. I was fascinated by this place. Never had I been part of a movie-going experience like this one. Before the curtain went up, the Thamada jingle played over the sound system. What I wouldn't do to have a copy of that on record. I didn't understand the lyrics for the life of me but I'm guessing it went something like "en-joy your-self at the ci-ne-ma, have a good time at the ci-ne-ma, la dee dee, la dee da."

Neon night and stretched head-lights.

Believe me, I wish I could bring you shots of the Thamada interior, but the watchdogs were growling and bearing their teeth. I can tell you this though: if you visit Yangon and neglect to see a movie at the Thamada Cinema you are missing out on one of the premier cultural events in town. You might as well forget to go see the Shwedagon Pagoda as well. In fact, if you have to choose between the two, choose the former. It's more fun, just as ritualistic and you won't get wet if it's raining.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Resurrecting the Siam?

Are my eyes deceiving me, or is Bangkok Post writer Prapasri Vasuhirun just playing a dirty trick? In a September 11th article, Vasuhirun outlines measures that Chulalongkorn University will be taking to rebuild the parts of Siam Square that were set ablaze during violent clashes between protesters and government troops on May 19th. Regular readers of the SEA Movie Theater Project, along with other high-minded members of the human race, know that the ultimate tragedy of the burnings was the destruction of Apex's Siam Theater. Ensuing speculation was that the 1960's movie mecca would rest in peace for eternity rather than undergo a costly rehabilitation job. An even grimmer rumor had it that Siam Square in its entirety would be ripped down to make way for yet another shopping mall. But now I'm reading otherwise:

"Renovating the burned-out Siam Theatre and the surrounding area will cost more than 1 billion baht, says Group Captain Permyot Kosolbhand, the vice-president of Chulalongkorn University.

Investment costs for renovating the nearly seven rai of land at Siam Square will be paid by the university itself." Read more

If these claims come through I may have to take up a religion.

Stay tuned for further developments.

("CU to spend B1bn on Siam Square." 11 September 2010: The Bangkok Post online)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Shae Saung Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

"The Burmese like new things. One can travel the length and breadth of the country and be hard pressed to find a single nonreligious structure more than a hundred years old. To a large extent this is of course the result of war and weather. But there is also no special value in living in a house with some history or aristocratic connections; the pukka house is a brand-new house and not a refurbished one. Most dwellings are (and were) simple constructions. They are generally made of some wood, bamboo, and thatch, and people would tear down their homes and reconstruct them every few years so that they looked as recently made as possible. This inclination, deeply held, extended later on to more solid structures as well. Whereas in the West shop owners will take pride in a sign proclaiming the age of their building (BUILT IN 1791), in Burma the opposite is often true. The original dates on a colonial-era building (BUILT IN 1921) will be hidden under coats of white paint, and a new sign might instead proclaim the year of the most recent repair"

The Shae Saung Cinema is an eight-hundred seat theater operated by the Mingalar Group. It's regular film fair consists of domestic makes and Bollywood imports. The evening these photos were taken was the Myanmar premiere of "Kites" - a widely heralded Indian action/romance/comedy. Riveted crowds swarmed for tickets throughout the course of the day, with every show drawing to capacity.

Shae Saung translates to "Pioneer"

Hopefully Thant Myint-U's observations on Burmese sentiments towards old buildings don't apply to cinema halls like the Shae Saung on Sule Pagoda Road, or any other of the country's cinema masterpieces for that matter.

Shae Saung means "Pioneer" in Burmese.

(Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2006: p. 132)

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

This along with the two posts to follow marks the end of my material for Yangon (though there's still much to come from other parts of the country). In saving these three for city's grand finale, I hope to close this chapter on a high note, even if the photos themselves are not exactly the most stellar of all time. It was no easy task getting what I got. These theaters, you see, are leased out by the Mingalar Group, Myanmar's largest movie theater operator, which very inconveniently has a zero tolerance policy towards the photographing of their venues. My each and every attempt to set up some nice shots was thwarted by Mingalar's relentless, hawk-eyed security guards, who deserve pay raises for their due diligence. Only by resorting to hit and run guerrilla photography was I able to get anything at all - a sullen tactic considering the creme de la creme status of these colorful houses of film.

The Nay Pyi Daw in streetscape

At roughly four-hundred seats, the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema is the smallest of Mingalar's Sule Pagoda Road sanctuaries, but no less sanctimonious than the others. A facade the likes of which I've never seen attached to a cinema hall attracts the eye and whets the appetite of those who cross its path. 1950's architectural indulgence I'd call it, but maybe the technical term is "brutalism," or some other sub-category of modern architecture. Correct terminology notwithstanding, it is a special building, with pastel coloring and a diamonds-within-squares patterning on the facade. One might almost expect to find something even better than film taking place inside.

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema on Sule Pagoda Road: one of the cities premiere entertainment destinations. On the ground level there's an adjoining business called Cafe Aroma, one of the few places in town serving fresh brewed coffee.

Both of the movies I saw at the Nay Pyi Daw, Iron Man 2 and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, drew sell-out crowds. Fast-talking ticket scalpers did their dealings just off theater grounds, selling tickets at inflated prices to those arriving minutes before show time. The mood was electric as hordes of revelers massed at the gates. The chatter, the excitement, the anticipation of escape into a temporary realm of the artificial was unrivaled. This was exactly what I had come to document. The stand-alone theater in all its living glory. Phantasmagoria in the great dictatorship. Hollywood hi-jinks in the gilded cesspool. If only the hounds were tethered, I would have walked away with a treasure trove of photos.

You can imagine the dismay I felt at being banned from taking pictures. I was practically banging my head against a brick pagoda with frustration. Cut out my liver and feed it to the street dogs, I simmered inwardly, but don't deny me the shoot! Don't make me into a criminal! Ultimately this is for you, Mingalar, and for the country of Myanmar as a whole. But there was no reasoning with them. As a result, I can't show you what it looks like in the most vibrant movie theaters in Southeast Asia. All the more reason, then, for you to get up and go see for yourself.

Nay Pyi Daw, like the name of the capital city itself, means "capital."

Towards the end of my stay in the country I found out why Mingalar has such a strict policy against taking pictures. It has to do with larger political/economic considerations, the details of which I'll let you figure out for yourselves.