Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Yadana Pon Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

From deep in the vaults, a near-forgotten specimen of leisure-time yore is dragged to the surface. The Yadana Pon Cinema stands dormant near busy Dagon Center, its late-Burmese Art-Deco exoskeleton faded but in tact.

Fatigue had overtaken me by the time I found it, having just come from a fruitful but physically taxing shoot of the Shwe Man Cinema around the corner. A dead theater following a stint in the Shwe Man's vitality failed to get the juices flowing. My typical enthusiasm when facing a stand-alone was absent, I admit, so in the name of energy conservation, I snapped off a few lazy shots from across the street.

Plain white tile adorns the Yadana Pon's facade.

Even in death, the Yadana Pon is the most attractive building on the block.

The Yadana Pon is in the heart of Sanchaung Township - one of the most congested parts of Yangon outside the colonial grid. A few hundred meters away, the enormous Dagon Center shopping mall attracts the city's middle class youth in droves. Despite its relative prosperity, Sanchaung, like most areas of Yangon above the rustically charming grid, is littered with structures built with seemingly nothing in mind but cost effectiveness. The exception is the Yadana Pon Cinema - dormant, darkened and awaited a fate as of yet unknown.

Monday, September 19, 2011

SEA Movie Theater Project to Hold Exhibition at BIFF

After a summer-long hiatus from documenting movie theaters, an eventful future seems to be in store. From October 6th to the 14th, the 16th annual Busan International Film Festival will be taking place in the South Korean city it's named for. And of all the honors to have bestowed, the SEA Movie Theater Project has been invited to hold an exhibition there. For the duration of the show, a grand total of 50 images depicting Southeast Asian movie theater architecture and atmosphere will be on display. At 6PM on the 7th, I'll be giving a talk about the project at the brand new Busan Cinema Center, which from the looks of it may very well be the ultimate cinema complex in the world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Tun Thiri Cinema - Pyay, Bago Division, Myanmar

Being pushed from Magwe's towns and cities, one after another, was reason enough to depart the dust choked division, with its xenophobes and zealous police force. We caught a bus south to the biggest city of western Bago Division - a bustling town hugging the banks of the Irrawaddy called Pyay.

There couldn't have been a better town to conclude January's Myanmar movie theater search than Pyay. Its collection of ornate buildings from the colonial days onward, crowning a city plan of gridded streets, offered visual intrigues at ever turn. The townsfolk, moreover, were nothing but welcoming, in stark contrast to the inhospitality we'd just departed in Magwe.

But the cherry on top of all Pyay's goodness is its lone cinema hall. The last of a purported four that once enriched the city's cultural life, the Tun Thiri Cinema is a surviving gem from an era when movie theaters were built with pride and high craftsmanship. Locals dated it to about 1960.

Typical of Myanmar movie theaters built during the independence era, Art Deco was employed in the Tun Thiri's design.

Through the trees.

Facade angles

Out-door ticket windows.

The ticket booth in the lobby. Each opening and its corresponding ticket seller represents a different price ticket. 500 Kyats, 800 Kyats and 300 Kyats.

Though clearly showing its years, the Tun Thiri Cinema has an elegance to it that is fairly common among Myanmar movie houses, of which the stand-alone variety reigns supreme. Their prevalence, however, is likely to decline as regional and global economic integration sends ripples of change through the country. In Myanmar, the age of the shopping mall is closing in, with multiplex monotony right on its heels. In the below passage, the Myanmar Times has detailed the openings of two new multiplex mini-theaters in Yangon, an event which could have grave implications for the country's stand-alones:

"WHEN Junction Maw Tin Shopping Centre opened last year in Yangon, on the corner Anawrahta and Lan Thit streets in Lanmadaw township, the facilities included Junction Cineplex, consisting of two small cinemas.

Taw Win Centre, which opened on Pyay Road in February, followed suit with three small cinemas of its own. Two are already showing Myanmar movies on DVD, with plans to open the third, equipped to show 3D movies, in October.

Thus has the modern mini-theatre, capable of holding no more than 200 audience members, been introduced to Yangon." FULL ARTICLE

Proscenium gold

Audience abstractions

View from the balcony during showtime.


Manager and ticket booth


The Tun Thiri's trusted "theatersmith," a staple of the business for many years.


The Tun Thiri Cinema closes out the catalog from my most recent trip to Myanmar - a theater which was indeed a grand finale to a great expedition. All said, there are still many towns and cities in Myanmar which I have yet to explore, a task I relish to undertake in the months ahead. But I have a sneaking suspicion that those theaters yet unseen will remain so into the foreseeable future. Hopefully they will be alive and well when the chance to document them comes again.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Exploits of the Expelled

Some scholars in the field of Southeast Asian Studies have argued that it was the spectacle of theater which provided legitimacy for rulers of classical Theravada Buddhist-Hindu polities. To possess within ones domain, the theory goes, troupes of Ramayana performers was like having the heavenly deities personified on Earth. A ruler's awed subjects would readily adhere to state ideology after witnessing the acrobatics of the god circus. And further, the ability to produce such performers was testament to the power and sophistication of the reigning court.

Fast forward a few millennia: movies have supplanted live performance as the leisure-time activity of choice, and the movie theater serves as its temple. One decade into the 21st century and many of the original cinemas of Myanmar, unlike those in other Southeast Asian countries, continue to operate, if in a state of gradual decline. On the advice of my interpreter/travel companion, a veteran of Myanmar back roads, we decide to seek them in several of Magwe Division's more out-of-the-way cities. From our mosquito ridden hotel room in the eponymous division capital we plotted a route: directly east, to Natmauk. From there, south, to Taungdwingyi and then back to Magwe. A triangle of travel, both axes of which, we were told, contain a cinema.

Magwe Division lies in the geographic heart of the country. Its southern boundary with Bago Division marks the transition from "lower" to "upper" Myanmar, to use terminology popularized in 19th century British colonial descriptions. The "Dry Zone," another local moniker, encompasses much of Magwe Division. Annual rainfall here is far below that of most other parts of the country. In January, height of the dry season, the impression of a desert - almost caricature in appearance - strikes the hardest. Cattle trod emaciated through mostly-fallow paddy fields, their slightly better fed human caretakers a flog-length away. In this country of plenty, malnutrition is bountiful.

Two hours of rumbling along a sand-swept road in the back of a covered pick-up, San San Pwint and myself pulled in to the town of Natmauk. The immediate scene was one of transitory rush: always a bewildering welcome to the newcomer. Guided by a local woman whom San San had befriended en route, we were quickly led away from the pandemonium of the transit depot. Behind us, a clamor of motorized vehicles from bygone eras and horse-drawn wagons vied for space. Residential quarters lay ahead.

Walking in tow of the two Burmophones - one native, one foreign born - while they conversed in a language I could not understand, I resigned myself to the tourist's gaze, taking in the streetscape, scanning from side to side, building to building. More than a few of Myanmar's urban zones feel as if the city-building effort was abandoned, mid-stride, decades ago. Instead, it seems, people focused on the far more practical task of procuring a living. For all intents and purposes, that was the case. In cities other than Yangon, streets and sidewalks feel less decayed than halfway built. Natmauk's well-spaced houses and tree-shaded lanes, charming on the surface, obscure the fact that most public utility infrastructure does not exist. The sidewalk on which we strode was but a dusty patch between house and road.

Barely 5 minutes into our walk and a motorbike pulled up beside us. Another soon followed. The blue camouflaged helmets worn by their drivers gave them away. The gendarmes were upon us! Our crime was a given: we had trespassed; entered a town prohibited to foreigners. Expulsion was the likely punishment. At this point our guide quietly departed, wishing us the best as she tried to avoid suspicions of treachery. San San Pwint was left holding the torch, her wits and her ample experience in dealing with Myanmar's petty tyrants our only recourse. In anticipation of such encounters, she had prepared a story that was both non-threatening and partially true: we had come to this insignificant little town, not to document its movie theater - that would be so bizarre, so comically absurd as to be viewed with alarm - but to visit the birthplace of national icon General Aung San.

Natmauk is indeed the town that spawned the leader of Burma's independence movement, father of the country's most popular political aspirant, Aung San Suu Kyi. The son of a lawyer and from a family of outspoken nationalists, Aung San entered the world in Natmauk on February 13th, 1915. His childhood home, a modest teak structure with a pitched roof, is listed in some guide books as an open tourist attraction. Unless one is hunting movie theaters, it's ostensibly the only reason to visit Natmauk.

It was a genuine surprise that we were granted permission to go through with our stated objective. The cops even went so far as to drive us there on the backs of their motorbikes. But the house was closed when we arrived, completely shuttered, with a sign in English on the door prohibiting photographs. We stood in front of this national historic landmark feigning disappointment at not being able to get in, as the cops and San San engaged in what seemed like a lighthearted conversation. A small crowd drifted in to bear witness to the incredible Burmese-speaking foreigner.

Our last stop in Natmauk before the final act of expulsion was the back room of a dingy, smoke-filled teashop near the transit depot. Here the sheriff and his deputy recorded our information on a pad of paper. Names, passport numbers, visa numbers, hotel we were staying at in Magwe, all written down. More conversation ensued between San San and our captors, the translated version soon made available to me. Options were offered to us. We could get on the next train out of town, the next bus out of town, or they could arrange some form of private transport for us. They were kindly interrogators, and as San San Pwint later told me, by the time the conversation was through they were remorseful for having to expel us.

We never got to see Natmauk's cinema.

The stuffy paranoia experienced in Natmauk is a byproduct of a regime mistrustful of everything and everyone. It is deeply ingrained in the law enforcement culture of Myanmar. In smaller towns, the goal of the local authorities when faced with foreigners is simply to move them out of their jurisdiction, regardless of where to, as quickly as possible. Once free of this burden, culpability is lifted and the anxiety of the security threat dissipates. Out of sight, out of mind. Responsibility is delegated. Nobody wants to be held accountable for harboring the enemy.

The paranoid surveillance of officialdom is compounded in Magwe Division the by the presence of civilian informants. These local nuisances seek monetary rewards in exchange for their patriotic whistle-blowing. Unfortunately, they featured prominently on the next leg of the trip.

The next stop on our itinerary was Taungdwingyi, where within ten minutes of our arrival immigration officials had tracked us down and told us to be on the next bus out of town. Though wholley disheartening to be thrown out by the authorities, because of the ineptitude of local informants, the expulsion process had a comic feel to it. Generally speaking, these characters proved themselves to be more blithering opportunists than a network of professional spies. San San Pwint, moreover, was skillful at crushing their spirits if they tried to intimidate us. The most memorable such incident occurred on the main road in Taungdwingyi, when a man approached us and demanded we write our names on a piece of paper. Unable to produce any identification proving he worked for a government agency, San San shredded the paper, handed it back to him and gestured for him to get lost. He thanked us politely for the handful of trash and our kindness.

Informant buffoonery notwithstanding, the suspicious stares and ever apparent xenophobia in Taungdwingwi were reason enough to curtail the theater search. This was the second town in a matter of hours in which we were more or less chased out of. The below photo of the Shwe La Min Cinema, taken on the slide before packing it in, was all I got from this tour of rejection through central Magwe.

A hastily taken shot of Taungdwingyi's Shwe La Min Cinema, the only image produced during a day-long trip through Magwe.