Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Soe San Cinema - Thazi, Madalay Division, Myanmar

A stop over in Thazi wasn't part of the original itinerary. The town's very existence defied my knowledge until the night before the train dropped me there. I hadn't taken notice of it on any map, in any guide book or through any other medium, despite my scramble to learn everything I could about Myanmar before arrival. Had it not been for an American father and daughter I met at my guest house in Toungoo, I would still be in the dark about Thazi. They not only convinced me to hop the train to Thazi with them the next morning, but very generously paid my way, too. Traveling altruists to the highest degree.

Thazi, it turned out, is a little junction town along the Yangon-Myitkyina train line, with a spur shooting out eastwards into Shan State and a north-westerly loop up to Mandalay. Being a junction town is ostensibly the source of its crooked reputation: entrepot for contraband and haven for hoodlums. One can only imagine an inglorious history chock-full of traffickers and stash-houses, proscribed goods from the country's vast hinterlands passing through Thazi en route to yonder ports and border crossings. But I wouldn't know anything about that stuff. I only came with the intention of documenting some movie theaters. What I found in Thazi was architectural gold in vernacular form, plus one of the most fascinating glimpses into the social life of the cinema I've ever seen.

This is Thazi's lone cinema, the Soe San, the first cinema I encountered in Myanmar that was made mostly of wood. Thazi is such a small place that the Soe San Cinema only warrants screening films once every other evening. There's simply too few movie-going residents in town for more than that. But the Soe San offers alternatives to its lack of theatrical regularity. Walk around to the rear of the auditorium to find an attached VCD rental shop, along with a snooker hall. At the front end of the Soe San is a long, narrow room with a projection television mounted on the wall. This room, approximating a mini-theater, is for broadcasting football matches.

Window to the VCD rental shop at the back of the Soe San Cinema

A blackboard displaying upcoming football matches.

Ticket seller waits by the entrance to the Soe San's football den

Tickets to enter the football den are 100 kyat, or about ten cents.

Every Myanmar aficionado I spoke with prior to departure clued me in to the proliferation of the football dens. They often serve as substitutes for movie theaters in towns too small to support one. In Thazi, however, the football den is included in the Soe San Cinema, making it an all-in-one entertainment center.

My night in Thazi coincided with day three of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The Soe San's football den was in full swing on account of it, with matches broadcast live from Johannesburg via satellite. Almost all the seats in the six or seven rows of benches were occupied when I arrived. An exclusively male audience sat silently imbibing the game, while smoke from their cigarettes and cheroots twisted up to the ceiling. A kindly young manager, who could speak a lick of English, let me set up my camera and tripod at the rear of the den, noticed but otherwise ignored by the preoccupied crowd. It was a photographer's delight.

On the right hand side of the above photo, a monk can be observed watching World Cup football in the Soe San Cinema's football den.

Mesh wire serves as a window for the ticket booths at the Soe San Cinema.

Looking at the side of the auditorium

Concessions include mangos and bananas

In many ways Myanmar's football dens are the local equivalent to pubs in terms of watching a sporting event. The difference being that for many of Myanmar's football fans there simply are no other options. It's either pile into the football den or don't watch at all. This is generally how it's done in a country where the average household lacks any electrical appliances, if they have electricity at all.

Another interesting facet of Myanmar's football dens is that they serve as a link to the wider world for a people largely cut-off from it. Viewing something as seemingly routine as a football match broadcast from England or South Africa constitutes a major break from the strictly local perspective most Myanmar get. There's an inverse to that equation, however.

For juggernauts like the European football leagues, their products get to be seen by even the most remote denizens of one the world's poorest countries. Whenever the trade sanctions against Myanmar are lifted, brands with a televised presence will likely enjoy a competitive advantage in this new market. Transnational corporations hawking football-related products will get rich while the football dens that introduced them disappear. Such is the way of the world.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Win Cinema - Toungoo, Bago Division, Myanmar

If, as it states in the Bauhaus school of architecture's manifesto, "the ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building," then it is only natural that the movie theater represents the height of creative function. What else can be expected when combining the "ultimate aim [in] creative activity" with the most dynamic of all the visual arts, film? By this definition the movie theater ought to be the most interesting building in town.

The Win Cinema, one of many elegant art deco cinemas in Myanmar.

I regret not putting the above theory to the test in Toungoo, where aside from a pilgrimage to the town's lone remaining movie theater, I did little exploring. One thing I did pick up on, however, was that the ethnic diversity; the melting-pot qualities typical of cities in lower Myanmar were absent up here. I was closing in on the central dry zone, cultural breadbasket of the Bamar (Burmese), where I found immediate solace in the Win Cinema.

Cut-out lettering on the pitch of the facade.

Show times beside the entrance

The ticket stand, concessions and entrance to the auditorium are accessed down a narrow corridor along the far left hand side of the Win. Movie posters are tacked to the wall and bicycles belonging to Win patrons and employees line the perimeter. Prior to show time, this is where everybody had congregated to chat and examine the posters on the wall.

Bikes and posters

Man buys ticket

Lining up

Tickets and their sellers

Concessions were sold by this woman and her husband. The couple arrived about 20 minutes before showtime, set up their products, sold a few things, and then packed up and left once the show started.

Usher sits next to auditorium entrance.

Wooden benches make up seating options on the first level.

Looking towards rear of balcony

Projectionist in his room, along with two old school, limelight powered projectors still in operation. The Win was the first theater outside of Yangon I found not using LCD projectors.

Looking out from auditorium into the corridor, after the lights had dimmed.

Looking towards the street from the corridor.

This passing novice found it hysterical that anybody would want to shoot a movie theater.

The Win Cinema is a nice one, indeed. Seeing it made my brief sojourn in Toungoo a worthwhile one. Its streamlined, art deco facade makes it stand out crisp among the surrounding architectural mundanity. While doing my thing at the Win, verbal exchanges between theater staff and myself were minimal on account of language barriers, but they were able to communicate that the Win was built in 1961 and that it contains a grand total of 783 seats. These days, however, business has cooled off significantly, with memories of packed houses growing more distant by the day. At its cinematic peak Toungoo had three functioning theaters, but the other two have since ceased to be. The Win hangs on, though. Yes, it hangs on..

(Whitford, Frank. Bauhaus. Thames & Hudson, 1984, p. 11)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Solid as a brick

A few days back I was contacted by reader and past contributor to the SEA Movie Theater Project, Randy Roberts. The 7th Street Theater in Randy's home town of Hoquiam, Washington has been undergoing a full-scale restoration, bringing it back to its original palatial form. A portion of the restoration funds have been raised through the sale of inscribed bricks to be laid in the sidewalk in front of the theater. Being a fan of the 7th Street, Randy contributed to the effort by purchasing a brick of his own, only instead of inscribing it with his own name, he had it made out to the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, web address and all.

Facade of the 7th Street Theater, Hoquiam, Washinton

Interior of the 7th Street Theater

Screen and proscenium

On the top center brick in the above photo you can see the inscription THE SOUTHEAST ASIA MOVIE THEATER PROJECT @ SEATHEATER.BLOGSPOT

Not only is the inscription a humbling gesture, but the entire effort is testament to the power of an active community. To Randy Roberts and all the people of Hoquiam who helped resurrect 7th Street Theater, my hat goes off to you.

Remember to support you local stand-alone theater!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Nyunt Cinema - Bago City, Bago Division, Myanmar

My adulation for the city of Bago reached new heights after finding the Nyunt Cinema in its midst. This 1950's-stock movie hall, with its pastel coloring and mosaic on the facade, is yet another piece of note-worthy architecture in a town with a sizable inventory of it.

Length-wise views of the Nyunt Cinema

The Nyunt ranks first in size out of Bago's trio of picture palaces and number two in age behind the venerable Shwe Hintha, over on yonder side of the river. An elderly man I met in a nearby tea shop, speaking with a distinguished English Burmese accent, dated the Nyunt to 1954 - about mid-way through the second nationwide movie theater construction boom. I tried picking the old Anglophone's brain, hoping to glean a little more Nyunt Cinema history, but he was stumped beyond its inaugural year. "What about the name?" I asked. "What does it mean in English?" He paused a moment.

"When children are young we call the tops of their heads 'Nyunt,'" he explained, searching his dormant English vocabulary for the best definition. "It can mean 'the highest,' or 'the top,' or...uhh...what's another word?...not 'the best''Apex!' Yes, it means Apex."

The apex of Bagoan cinemas halls, the Nyunt.

Ode to architectural cubism

Tile mosaic above the entrance and classic vertical sign.

Ticket booth and lobby posters.

Waiting in the lobby for the show to start.

Looking down from stairs leading to balcony.

The manager/projectionist at the Nyunt Cinema, perched on a stool in the lobby. If you look closely you can see that his foot is a prosthetic. Both of them are, actually. Our linguistic differences created an unfortunate communications impasse, as it was clear that he would have gladly shared his deep knowledge of the old theater had I known a bit more Burmese. Nonetheless, the man was kind enough to lead me up to the projection booth to take a look at the old projectors.

Old projector using a carbon rod as a light source.

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

One of my best memories from doing this project in Myanmar took place right there at the Nyunt Cinema. It was just a few minutes before show time and I was up in my balcony seat taking in the sights and sounds of this grand old movie hall while the crowd filtered in. Burmese pop music blared from the sound system at blood curdling decibels. Hordes of young teens filled the balcony seats, row after row, hooting and hollering and lighting up cigarettes in anticipation of the coming dimmed lights and auditory mischief to be made. The zoo was out, apparently. Two teenage boys wearing skin tight shirts and ripped jeans came down from the rear rows and sat one on either side of me. The boy to my left offered me a cigarette, which I declined, hoping to set a good example. The boy to my right zeroed in on a conversation, asking the usual series of questions asked by locals of tourists, in the most basic English imaginable. Behind us, all their little bros shouted down to them, egging them on to gab with the guest, while clouds of tobacco smoke filled the air. Our exchange went on for few minutes before they bounded back to their seats, met with raucous screams and laughter from their friends.

Just before the start of the movie, most theaters in Myanmar, not all, project an image of the national flag onto the screen while playing the national anthem over the sound system. Ostensibly, the audience is supposed to stand in honor of the nation, an act which I expected would be vehemently adhered to in Myanmar given the stiff penalties for sedition and the general culture of paranoia so frequently talked about in the foreign media. But I was consistently surprised to see high numbers of people, in theater after theater, not bothering to stand up at all.

In Thailand, on the other hand, not standing at the movies during the playing of the King's anthem can get you slapped with lese majeste charges, or at least some heavy duty ridicule from any zealots that may be in the crowd.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Yadagon Cinema - Bago, Myanmar

As a rule of thumb, my objects of affection - movie theaters - receive nothing less than eulogy on the SEA Movie Theater Project. Heaping praise on them is what the site is all about. On occasion, however, a mitigating circumstances will arise warranting exception to the rule. This is one such case. Behold what appears to be the most cryptic, down-right haunted looking (active) theater I've ever laid eyes upon. Ladies and gentleman, Bago's third-string cinema hall, the Yadagon.

The Yadagon Cinema: den of the sinister or just a bit shabby?

The least inviting looking theater ever!

Ticket window

The macabre aesthetic gave me the chills as I moved in for a closer inspection. Old Yadagon Cinema looks like it could use an exorcism, I thought, scanning the place with suspicion. But I soon learned that censure of the theater need not transcend its sinister looks. The on-hand staff was nothing but gracious, permitting me entrance while they prepared for the days' activities. Further diluting my expectant horror was a group of ragamuffin children scampering around the theater grounds; the kids of various vendors and employees of the cinema, growing up in its long shadow.

Cinema kids posing for the camera under the Yadagon's vestibule.

Yadagon employee and recently hung posters

Looking back towards the rear of the auditorium. In the last row, wooden partitions separate every two seats so that couples can have their privacy.

Local Bagoans dated the Yadagon to the early 1960's, perhaps one of the last pre-junta theaters built in the country. Something tells me, however, that this one was late 1960's and State-built. The assumption stems from its location in the town; down a long, straight boulevard dead-ending at one of Bago's famed gilded pagodas. It might have been an attempt to capitalize on proximity to a national historic landmark. I can only guess.

I don't know what kind of crowd it attracts nor whether or not the equipment therein allows for quality entertainment. It was well before show time when I visited. Presumably though, this is Bago's main flophouse cinema. Incidentally, it was also the first of several theaters I found in Myanmar that had bats swooping across the auditorium. A bizarre infestation, but one which I found comforting in a very primitive kind of way.