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.


  1. nice post. thanks! Stefan

  2. totally makes me want to make a trip to taunggyi just for the theater. thanks for the post!