Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Myathuka Cinema - Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar

The ever-stagnant world of Myanmar politics recently experienced some rumblings. Earlier this month, General Than Shwe announced the devolution of his exclusive power and the dissolving of his party, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Excitement over this development, however, should be tempered by the fact that it will likely amount to little more than a reshuffling of oligarchs. Maybe a few trading in their soldier threads for civilian attire. A dog and pony show put on by professional plunderers. Fortunately, for those of pure mind and spirit, there are far more pressing issues to follow in Myanmar, such as the state of the country's movie theaters. To that extent, the final installment of Taunggyi's movie theater triumvirate is now on display.

The lime-green color scheme on the Myathuka Cinema's exterior might not be the most attractive, but there was some logic involved in this verdant aesthetic maneuver. Myathuka means "Delightful Emerald" in Burmese. As a visual expression of a name, the effect is poignantly bad. The more I look at it, in fact, the more ridiculous it seems. A lethal, toxic shade of green standing right there on Taunggyi's main thoroughfare. But lets not judge a movie theater by its paint job! Beyond the exterior, intrigues are to be found in abundance.

Clusters of ribbon window on the Myathuka's facade.

An empty bell tower marks the crest of the Myathuka Cinema.

One of the Myathuka's more striking features is a bell-less bell tower at the top corner, facing out over a fairly busy intersection. Apparently without a bell from day one, the ersatz tower manages to add a bit of stoic dignity to the block, much like a church or a town hall.

Another architectural oddity can be found in the interior. As with most movie theater auditoriums, the floor of the Myathuka slopes downwards on a gentle gradient, getting deeper as it approaches the screen. But in a bizarre twist of design the four rows of seats closest to the screen begin a sharp incline, raising movie-watchers upwards as if they were sitting on the crest of a frozen wave.

Looking down over the lobby.

Ticket booth

The purchase

A Tumbling Kelly doll, signifying resilience, adds a bit of color to the ticket booth counter.

Projectionists two.

Operating a carbon-arc projector from the late 1950's is a hands-on task. A slowly burning carbon rod needs constant attention, lest the image quality fade as the carbon rod gets shorter. Here the projectionist monitors the carbon rod's length, adjusting a reflecting mirror to keep the light source consistent.

The projector's glow.

For the past 10 years, the majority of movies produced in Myanmar have been done so on VCD format. Using this medium allows a movie to be made for about ten-thousand dollars, roughly one-tenth the cost of making a movie on film, of which only a handful of movies are made each year. The cheaply-made VCD/DVD movies suffer an immeasurable absence of quality. Moreover, the formats of such movies require LCD projectors in order to screen them, which don't come close to matching the richness of film-projected movies. At the Myathuka, I had the pleasure of watching a domestic movie projected from film for the first time outside of Yangon. Being more expensive to make, directors generally put more effort into making film movies look decent. Cinematography is a practiced art-form in these movies, so even if the story is shallow, which it invariably will be, at least there will be technical value.

The movie I watched at the Myathuka happened to be the latest from Myanmar's most acclaimed active director, Sin Yaw Mg Mg.

The two night projectionists pose for a shot.

Exiters and movie posters.


As of now, Taunggyi remains a city characterized by its compactness and walkability - a trait common to nearly all of Myanmar's urban centers. The expansion of car suburbs is limited to Yangon, where a soulless stretch of conurbation spans ever northward. With the resources of a city like Taunggyi concentrated in the urban core, stand-alone theaters can survive. In Taunggyi they even seemed to be doing well. But Taunggyi's churning economy, the result of being the primary market town in southern Shan State, makes it susceptible to sprawl. If ceasefires between the ruling Junta and the various armies based in Shan State are adhered to, Taunggyi's economy will only grow stronger. Already the roads are more congested than most other Myanmar towns I've visited. And as congestion increases, those with the means to do so will likely move further afield in search of elbow room, if not to flaunt a little status. Their retreat will herald the end of a dynamic urban core, where three stand-alone movie theaters can operate effectively.

But until that happens the Myathuka Cinema should be open for business. So if you find yourself in Taunggyi, go watch a movie there. Marvel at the up-turned seating at the front of the auditorium. Gawk in repulsion at its heinous paint job. Hideous or not, the Myathuka is the largest movie theater in Shan State. It deserves a visit.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Myoma Cinema - Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar

In the Myoma Cinema, what we have is a clear case of "facadicide" - that's fake Latin for murdering a building's facade. At some point in the last ten or so years, some genius had the brilliant idea of slapping this repulsive plastic paneling over the Myoma's original Art Deco frontage. Now it looks more like a giant car stereo than the work of a trained architect. The theater actually dates to the 1950's, back when the art of cinema building was at its peak across Myanmar. You can be sure that what was covered up is far more attractive than what you see.

Out-dated sound and projection systems are often death knells for stand-alone theaters. In such cases, the wealthier multiplex with its corporate efficiency swoops in to corner the market left out in the cold by the ailing stand-alone. Movie theaters, like any structural type, should be kept up to date as much as possible to avoid such fates. Masking a stand-alone's facade, however, the work of an artisan, behind cheap, prefabricated material, ought to be a punishable offense. The perpetrator has recklessly devalued the visual aesthetic of the street-scape to which the theater is a part. As for Taunggyi, it's been violated! Look on with a astonishing boredom.

Crime of the small minded

In an effort to make up for this dullard of a post, I'll leave you with this passage from Ryszard Kapuscinski:
"Our world, seemingly global, is in reality a planet of thousands of the most varied and never intersecting provinces. A trip around the world is a journey from backwater to backwater, each of which considers itself, in its isolation, a shining star. For most people, the real world ends on the threshold of their house, at the edge of their village, or, at the very most, on the border of their valley. That which is beyond is unreal, unimportant, and even useless, whereas that which we have at our fingertips, in our field of vision, expands until it seems and entire universe, overshadowing all else. Often, the native and the newcomer have difficulty finding a common language, because each looks at the same place through a different lens. The newcomer has a wide-angle lens, which gives him a distant, diminished view, although one with a long horizon line, while the local always employs a telescopic lens that magnifies the slightest detail."

(Kapuscinski, Ryszard. 2001: The Shadow of the Sun. Vintage International. p. 171)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Bandula Cinema - Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar

As mentioned in the previous post, Bangkok's Sala Chalerm Krung Theater was commissioned by King Phrajodhipok - the 7th monarch of Thailand's reigning Chakri Dynasty. Up in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, four of the old stand-alone theaters were built by Prince Suriwong Na Chiang Mai - a member of the annexed kingdom's royal household. Crossing the border into Laos, at least one of the theaters in Vientiane - the converted Saeng Lao Cinema - was erected in the 1950's by a descendant of Lan Xang nobility, while the Pakse Theater in the capital of Champassak Province sprang from the purse of Prince Boun Oum Na Champassak. By now I'm sure you've guessed the pattern: in the Theravada states of Southeast Asia, aristocracy and movie exhibition have long gone hand-in-hand. In at least one case, the same holds true for the princely domains of Myanmar's Shan State: Taunggyi's Bandula Cinema.

The Bandula Cinema with its Greek Revival detailing

The years following World War II were years of high hopes and aspirations in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia. Decolonization, coupled with the need to rebuild from the war, unleashed a tidal wave of productive energy throughout the country, if not a fare share of often-violent political jockeying. Economic elites of both the hereditary and business variety took advantage of this watershed in opportunity to pursue their interests, forge a new society. Construction of new buildings boomed, as dates engraved on the cornices of many attest to. The years from 1948 to 1962 are common birth marks upon Myanmar architecture.

It was at the threshold of independence - 1947-48 - that the Bandula Cinema came into existence. The driving force behind the project was a man of Shan nobility, the Sawbwa (king) of Hsisaing - Hsisaing being one of the many royal cities of the Shan territories. Under the British, Taunggyi was made the administrative capital of Shan State, as it lay conveniently outside the jurisdiction of any local Sawbwas. When independence from the British was achieved, a touch of nationalistic cynicism accompanied the Sawbwa of Hsisaing's decision to dub his new cinema the "Bandula." The name is in reference to Bandula the Great, Maha Bandula - a legendary, almost mythical general dating back to Burma's own imperialist days. Despite his military prowess, Badula was killed in battle defending the country against the British, blown to bits by a rocket as he tried to rile his demoralized soldiers. His death meant the demise of Burmese independence, the full onslaught of the British and their colonizing ways. With their departure in 1947, however, the choice to name his cinema "the Bandula" was an obvious, if not subtle, "good-riddance" directed at his oppressors by an old aristocrat. Sadly, the last Sawbwa of Hsisaing died of a stroke before his theater was completed.

A leather tanner adds color to a jacket in front of the Bandula Cinema


Details on the Bandula Cinema's exterior tiles. The Greek Revival design is the first I've ever encountered on a Southeast Asian movie theater.

Lobby view

Ticket window and lobby cards.

After the movie let out.


It's been over sixty years since the Bandula Cinema first opened its doors and it's still going strong. For all intents and purposes, the theater's profitability has kept it from being reduced to rubble. Taunggyi is a genuine boom town; as the populous scrambles to acquire riches, they seem to have forgotten to look after the town's structural heritage. Almost everything older than 1962 has been razed and replaced by cheaply made riff-raff from materials trucked down from China. It's pretty shameful! In fact, Taunggyi is the one and only Myanmar town that I felt no love for.

I do, however, have love for the Bandula - the only cinema in Southeast Asia I've ever encountered that has elements of Greek Revival architecture. Obviously it's a fairly loose interpretation of the style, but charming all the same.

(Many thanks to U Tsai, nephew of the last Sawbwa of Hsisaing, who jostled his memory for long-forgotten facts and figures)