Monday, November 29, 2010

The Myo Gon Yaung Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

This may sound like a strange thing to write about a movie theater, but the Myo Gon Yaung Cinema has genuinely tragic origins. The tragedy dates back to 1981, when large sections of Mandalay were besieged by fire and thousands of buildings across the city went up in smoke. In 1984 fire struck again, taking thousands more structures to a fiery grave. In both cases, tens of thousands of Mandalayans were left homeless.

Among the fire casualties of 1981 was an old movie theater that occupied the land where the Myo Gon Yaung now stands. Details of this erstwhile cinema hall were hard to come by, but that's beside the point. What's important to note is that the Myo Gon Yaung, in its current manifestation, was built by the State's Ministry of Construction as a replacement for the one lost in the blaze of '81.

The Myo Gon Yaung Cinema: a Mandalay fixture since 1984.

Entrance steps

Poster for the Myanmar film "The Three Brides" hangs from the side wall.

The Myo Gon Yaung was the prototype for two later additions to Mandalay's government-built trio of movie theaters. Each of them share nearly identical designs, differing only in the most minute details. All three are the brain children of one architect.

An usher stands beside the window in the upper lobby of the Myo Gon Yaung Cinema.

Two destructive, city-wide blazes within a few years of each other speak volumes to the severity of neglect suffered by Myanmar's urban centers. With that in mind, I can only muster a tepid 'hats off' to the powers that be who commissioned the replacement Myo Gon Yaung. Not to detract from this wonder of socialist-inspired cinema architecture. It is, after all, a palace of joy to the entertainment-starved denizens of this, my favorite dust-strewn city in the galaxy.

Ticket taker at her post, puppy in arms.


Lastly, Myo Gon Yaung translates to "City Lights;" an attractive and original name for a movie theater, if I ever heard one, but which is blatantly misleading given the irregular supply of electricity in Mandalay. Just take a walk through the streets after dark and you'll see what I mean.
Just for the sake of visual comparisons, here's all three of Mandalay's State-built theaters back-to-back-to-back. Juxtapose away.

The Myo Goun Yaun Cinema, c. 1984

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema, c. 1990

The Myoma Cinema c. 1998

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

It was mid-day by the time my drifting through Mandalay's sun-beaten streets led me to the front steps of the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema. The relentless heat of Myanmar's second largest city had me sweating like a pig, teetering on brink of collapse. Why hadn't I just payed one the city's thousands of pedicab drivers to chauffeur me there like any normal human would have done?

Looking as if I'd just emerged from a swamp, and probably smelling the part no less, I asked permission of the Nay Pyi Daw's manager to document this theatrical giant. Permission was granted.

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema: I should have hitched a ride with that pedicab driver!

If the Win Lite and Myoma represent Mandalay's movie theater elite, with lofty ticket prices to match, then the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema is the city's blue collar paradise. Located on a small, unpaved alley off of 26th Street in the midst of a largely residential neighborhood, the turquoise-colored cinema hall provides Mandalayans with quality entertainment at a reasonable price.

A women unloads bags of pork rinds for sale at the Nay Pyi Daw concession stand.

Built in 1990, the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema was the second of three government-financed theaters to get built in Mandalay during the 1980's and 90's. All of them share nearly identical, rectangular designs, with massive entrance arches at either end. They were all conceived by the same architect; a woman whose name I was not able to track down.

The newest of Mandalay's state-built theaters, the Myoma Cinema, featured a few posts back, has the aesthetic distinction of having blue and red tiles covering the exterior walls. Meanwhile, the Nay Pyi Daw and its elder sibling feature their original plaster and poured concrete facades. Only the paint jobs differ.

The boxy, functional designs found among the three theaters, combined with a caricature-like take on indigenous ornamentation among the older two, seem to have found inspiration from the "Burmese Road to Socialism;" the treatise on economic development that guided national policy from the mid-1960's to the late 80's. If we didn't know better it would be safe to assume that our beloved Nay Pyi Daw Cinema architect stole the chapter "The Burmese Guide to Socialist Theater Building" for herself. Maybe she even wrote it.

Plaster relief work along the Nay Pyi Daw's arch

The rear entrance to the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema is occupied by seamstress's shop called Mi Mi's. The proprietor, Mi Mi - a native of Sittwe - was sewing a dress as I perused the theater grounds. Her husband is the theater's projectionist.

Mi Mi at work on a dress.

Kids in theater lobbies these days!

Drinking water for patrons at the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema comes in two forms: the usual bottled form, such as you would find for sale at the concessions stand, and the melted-block-of-ice form, as depicted in the above photo. The latter is dispensed by placing a block of ice in a mesh filter suspended over two plastic cups. The icy run-off percolates through the filter, into the plastic cups below and is then poured into the metal cups seen off to the side. From there they are sold by the cup-full to thirsty customers; the least expensive beverage available. After each customer has quenched their thirst the cups are returned, wiped down and the process begins anew.

Myanmar is the only place I've ever seen this method of providing drinking water and the Nay Pyi Daw is the only cinema I've ever seen it used in.

Authentic ice-water, the old fashioned way.

The two kids on the right of the above photo enjoy an icy drink courtesy of a block of ice.

Tickets, please!

Nay Pyi Daw staff at repose in the lobby while the movie shows in the auditorium.

Diagonal lobby view

It was thanks to the hospitality of this man, Mr. Zaw Myint, that I came to learn anything of the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema. Mr. Zaw Myint has been leasing the Nay Pyi Daw from the Ministry of Information since it was built in 1990, doing his best to keep it turning a profit despite what he calls "a cold climate" for most movie theaters in Myanmar. "Most Myanmar are simply too poor to go to the movies regularly," he claimed. As a result, movie producers cut budgets to a bare minimum, detracting from the quality of the films they make. Zaw Myint knows this story all too well. In the past he tried his hand at movie production, funding close to a dozen features under the company name of Yi Myint Productions.

When asked about the success of the Mingalar-run theaters in Yangon and Mandalay, he attributed it to their ability to obtain Hollywood and other international films, which wealthier Myanmar will pay higher prices to see. In other words, Mingalar has a monopoly on the good stuff.

Zaw Myint's clientele at the Nay Pyi Daw, he emphasized, is comprised of poorer members of Mandalay society. The average turn-out is between 50 and 100 patrons per show.

In addition to running the theater, Zaw Myint distributes films throughout central Myanmar.

Nay Pyi Daw means "capital."

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Win Lite Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

For those of you in an information coma, you should be aware that there's serious cause for celebration over in Myanmar. No, the government has not allocated a quarter of its operating budget to restoring the country's tattered movie theaters. Even I have to admit that that would be insanely stupid. The good news is that Myanmar's most popular political figure and symbol of hope, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been released from house arrest. This move comes on the heels of highly suspect national elections held this past Sunday, November the 7th.

Suu Kyi has been confined by the government to her home for the past 7 years, banned along with the political party she heads (the National League for Democracy) from engaging in politics. Her release is seen as a step forward in a country that has felt the affects of political repression and economic decay for years.

But economic decay doesn't always mean decay in every facet of life, nor is the existing decay absolute. There are, in fact, as has been pointed out about a half dozen times on this blog, a handful of structures which could even qualify as world class - and that's just counting movie theaters. Mandalay's Win Lite Cinema is one of them.

The Win Lite Cinema is set back from 82nd Street inside a small court.
Mother and two sons head to the pictures.

The Win Lite is the older of the two Mandalay theaters operated by the Mingalar Company. Like all of Mingalar's theaters, this one is structurally flawless down to the most minute detail. Dozens of staff are employed to keep it that way.

According to theater management, who very hesitantly and under tight observation allowed me to take some exterior shots, the Win Lite is about 50 years old. That places its construction within Myanmar's democratic interlude experienced between the end of colonialism (1948) and the start of authoritarianism (1962).

During that brief window of progress, various modernist schools of architecture seem to have gained favor with Myanmar's architects. Of the cinemas I surveyed concurrent to the democratic period, art deco and international style architecture were most prevalent. The Win Lite looks as if it has elements of both art deco and the German modernist school, Bauhaus, in its design.

Satisfied customers

A green mesh tarp hangs over the court yard in front of the theater, serving as a sun visor.



The Win Lite Cinema wins big in Mandalay, as the above photos attest to. Apparently it is the favorite theater of the city's well heeled, even more so than the Myoma Cinema of the previous post. Perhaps it's the half-century of provenance that gives it its beloved appeal. Whatever the attraction, being able to see a downtown theater, street-level, vibrant, providing an economy for myriad small businesses in the vicinity, was a total inspiration.

Welcome back Aung San Suu Kyi.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Myoma Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

Mingalar Group, Myanmar's biggest film exhibition company, runs the nicest theaters in the country. They also employ some iron-fisted policies when it comes to photographing them. Each and every time I moved in on one of their Yangon movie palaces I was, without exception, given the boot. Only by stealth was I able to take the few photos that I did, leaving me feeling criminalized and defeated.

Fortunately, the mood in Mandalay was more congenial. Mingalar management in the twice-removed former capital gave the green light to shoot away at their two central Myanmar holdings. With prohibition lifted, my spirits exhumed from the grave and under alluring summer skies, I took aim at the pristine Myoma Cinema.

Dating to only 1998, the Myoma is but a baby in terms of Myanmar movie theaters. Along with two other theaters in Mandalay, all of similar architectural design, it was commissioned by the State's Ministry of Construction. To what this act of beneficence is owed, I can only guess. In the early 1980's, about one-third of Mandalay was destroyed by fire, presumably sending a movie theater or two up in smoke. The Myoma's inception, then, was likely a government effort at breathing new life into the scorched city. In the face of catastrophe, a little cinematic reprieve is a psychological life vest.

Patrons exit a mid-day showing of "Clash of the Titans"


In streetscape context

School children pass the Myoma Cinema on their way home.

Nocturnal Myoma

The fabled city of Mandalay is as impressive as one might imagine. Founded in 1857 by King Mindon, the city spreads out gridded and geometrically from the Mandalay Palace walls and surrounding moat in the center of town, making it one of Southeast Asia's best walking cities. During daylight hours, an abundance of trees lining the streets shield pedestrians from Myanmar's blistering dry-zone sun. After nightfall the city's residential neighborhoods come to life, as locals take advantage of cooler temperatures to socialize in front of their homes and shops.

Not everything in Mandalay is peachy keen, though. Besides the usual ailing infrastructure common to Myanmar cities, Mandalay's biggest problem is a perennial battle with dust blown in from the surrounding arid countryside. When the wind gets to blowing that dust kicks up like a Sahara sandstorm. But not to worry! Mandalay's half a dozen cinema halls like the Myoma provide refuge from air-born particulates and all.

Side view


Much respect is due to the Mingalar staff up in Mandalay, who broke with company protocol to accommodate the SEA Theater Project. Had permission been granted to shoot the interior, I'd have been dancing a jig all the way to Maymyo. That didn't happen, but a debt of gratitude is owed all the same.

If you should happen to find yourself in Mandalay, duck the heat and check out whatever they're screening over at the Myoma. Doing so will be worth your time, even in the event of a sub-standard film. This might be the only theater in the world that has intricately carved latticework serving as a proscenium, an appealing feature for those with an eye for good architecture.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Grand Cinema - Meiktila, Mandalay Division, Myanmar

The Grand


A plaster relief symbol adorns the facade above the door. Its significance, if any, was unknown.

View from the side. Notice it's corrugated tin roof - a common feature of Myanmar's older movie theaters.

Waiting near the concessions.


The four maidens on the left were all extremely camera shy. Their pivoted position was an attempt at avoiding being photographed. In all the other photos I took, they turned completely around as if they were examining the movie posters above.

"Myo Myin Yo-shin Yon"

The social and cultural importance that the Grand Cinema holds for Meiktila is all apparent. It quite literally stands at the commercial center of town. Surrounding it are various tea shops and restaurants, including one that serves sheep brain.

About a half hour before showtime, Burmese pop music is played over speakers mounted on the theater, adding a carnival-like atmosphere to the town's commercial heart. As the crowds wandered in, beckoned by the audible delights, all I could think of was that this was the temple of film sending out its call to prayer.