Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Yadana Cinema - Kalaw, Shan State, Myanmar

From bustling Taunggyi we traveled westwards, toward the edge of the Shan Plateau. Our destination was Kalaw, the second of the old British Burma hill station towns, where we held out hope for a colonial-era cinema hall or two.

More of a glorified village than anything else, Kalaw sits cupped within a high mountain valley flanked by pine tree-covered peaks. Like Pyin Oo Lwin, Kalaw was originally established as a British military outpost on the Shan frontier. But as the threat of insurrection on the Shan Plateau waned, Kalaw developed into a hot season retreat for British officialdom, as well as a market town along the Taunggyi train line. The surrounding hills, populated by an ethno-linguistic spectrum that includes Pa-O, Danu, Shan and Palaung, compliments a town of equally diverse composition. Where ever in Burma the British settled so grew communities from other colonies in the British Empire. Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Nepalis established themselves in various crafts and services along side British-run resource extraction industries. Some of the migrants came to work as laborers in the industries themselves. One lifelong Kalaw resident spoke of nearby villages settled by ethnic Turks recruited by the British in the early 20th century to build the railroad. For all its physical smallness, Kalaw is one of the more culturally assorted places in Myanmar, if not all of Southeast Asia.

An operating cinema, however, it does not have. The remnants of two mark the low density city scape, but none can be said to provide entertainment any longer. The elder of the two cinemas, despite its lengthy stint of cessation and minimal external evidence of its former self, is quite a gem. Its name, Yadana, even translates as such.

January was apparently the wrong time of year to try to photograph the former Yadana Cinema, as direct sunlight never graced its north-facing facade.

Front door to the erstwhile Yadana, now a drinking pub called "Mr. Thumb's."

Kalaw's kaleidoscopic diversity helped spawn the Yadana Cinema, built in 1953 by a Persian Zoroaster businessman. Touted as a much admired denizen of Kalaw, with business acumen to match, the cinema showman left town and country shortly after the military coup and subsequent nationalization of movie theaters in 1962, settling with his family in Canada. During our visit, several of his daughters, now elderly women, made a trip to their birthplace for the first time since leaving. A stopover at the old family cinema hall was made, but we were unfortunately not able to arrange a meeting.

In the plasterwork just below the crown, Yadana can be seen spelled out in Burmese script. Below that, the barely visible romanized spelling of Yadana Cinema Hall has been chipped away.

Wood framed windows

A former cinema lobby-turned-dive bar.

What was once the lobby of the Yadana Cinema is now a drinking pub called Mr. Thumb's - a veritable dive specializing in Premiere League football broadcast via satellite. I spent an hour or so there nursing a Myanmar Beer, trying to pick out details of the cinema's former self. The only obvious leftover is a plaster molding on the wall reading Yadana, above which is the outline of poster box. One can only imagine the colorful movie posters tacked in that space during the 1950's, and the intrigue they must have inspired in the residents of this relatively remote outpost.

Plaster molding on the wall reading "Yadana" below where movie posters were once hung. The sign in the corner of the photo reads "To all partons: please do not rinse your mouth and spit it back in to beer mugs."


Side door to auditorium

The front half of the Yadana might bear scant evidence of its former self, but step into the back and the old auditorium will leave you with no doubts. Unused save for an annual New Years party held by Mr. Thumb, the auditorium of the Yadana is a blast from the past. It's not hard to imagine packed houses on chilly Kalaw nights, with captivated crowds, their myriad tongues collectively silenced by a spectacle unlike any other.

A bare auditorium at Yadana Cinema

During my brief furlough in Kalaw, I had the good fortune of meeting a lifelong native who has since taken up the mantle of social activist for the surrounding rural communities. As a young man in the 1950's this local notable was a regular at the Yadana. Jogging his long memory yielded vivid recollections of the film fair of his youth: Elia Kazan's "East of Eden," Cecil B. DeMille's "The 10 Commandments" and the epic "Ben Hur," directed by William Wyler, among others, all came to mind. Such forms nostalgia will be absent from today's generation of Kalaw youth as they reach their twilight years.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Another blow to the silver screen

There's a pile of things I've been meaning to post about, but lack the time to do so. Naturally, this site being what it is, most of the said topics relate to movie theaters. The most relevant, however, does not relate directly to the rapturous stand-alones of Southeast Asia, even though in some places and certain cases parallels do abound. We turn instead to the halls of corporate Hollywood, against which the directorial elite are up in arms over the future of movie-going.

About a month ago, four Hollywood studios began negotiations with a cable television provider to make new releases available on-demand shortly after their theatrical debuts. Such a move, argue some of Hollywood's top filmmakers, would have adverse affects for the movie industry across the board.

If the deal goes through, the latest in film could be accessed via Video On-Demand television a mere two months after hitting the big screen, further undercutting the profits of already-hurting movie theaters, many of which recently doled out large sums to buy 3D-capable projection systems.

But its the demise of the movie-going experience which most worries the likes of James Cameron, Peter Jackson and twelve other Hollywood heavyweights whom have spoken out against their corporate employers. Economics aside, there is no better way to view a movie than on the silver screen, the way the medium was developed. The arbitrary undermining of this practice would further diminish one the modern eras richest social practices.

At least one Hollywood producer has suggested that the only way to rationally get around this impasse would be for the studios to start investing in their own movie theaters. Doing so would guarantee larger box-office returns for the huge conglomerates by overturning anti-trust legislation passed over 60 years ago in the case the United States Vs. Paramount Pictures (filed originally by Philadelphia's own William Goldman Theater Co.). The landmark case forced Hollywood studios to sell off their theater holdings, thus opening the door for smaller exhibitors to show the latest goods from Tinseltown. It was a genuine instance of FDR-style Trust Busting finding application in the cinema.

What all this means for movies and movie theaters throughout Southeast Asia is yet to be seen. Likely each country will experience different effects depending on the profusion of Hollywood movies into the local market. That is, if anything happens at all. Regrettably, the SEA Movie Theater Project places little faith in the corporate world of modern motion pictures to do right by anybody other than themselves.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Day of the Theatersmiths: a 2011 May Day special

On this, the first day of May 2011, the SEA Movie Theater Project shines the spotlight not on the glorious stand-alone cinema halls of Southeast Asia, but on the workers who make them run. If not for these silent toilers, whose time and effort is dedicated to the leisure of others, life would be sorely lacking. Here are some of the theatersmiths I ran into during my travels over the past year.

The ticket taker at the Nakorn Non Rama, in Nonthaburi, Thailand. He's been there for over 20 years.

The projectionist at the Win Cinema, Toungoo, Myanmar.

The assistant manager at Mandalay's Myoma Cinema.

Ticket sellers at the Cherry Lwin Cinema, Pwin Oo Lwin, Myanmar.

Ticket seller at the Grand Cinema, Meiktila, Myanmar.

The staff of the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema in Mandalay, at rest in the lobby while the film was showing.

The ticket seller at Bago's Shwe Hintha Cinema stamps the date of tickets before showtime.

The two night projectionists at the Myathuka Cinema in Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar.

This young lady works the door for balcony seating at the Waziya Cinema in Yangon.

Ticket seller at the Waziya.

The rough and tumble security guards at Yangon's Shwe Man Cinema.

The Shwe Man Cinema's lovely day time door girl.

This woman has been taking tickets at the Mingala Thiri Cinema for a long, long time.

Not exactly theatersmiths, but laborers no less. These gentlemen work in the out-of-commission Gon Cinema loading and unloading non-perishables.

Happy International Labor Day, everybody.