Thursday, October 19, 2017

A few more of Myanmar's cinema treasures back in business

Before you write off the stand-alone movie theater in Southeast Asia as a dying form from last century, take a look at Myanmar.

Mingala Cinemas, the largest cinema exhibitor and distributor in the country, has been on a tear of late acquiring and refurbishing defunct old movie theaters nationwide. Over the past 3 years they have expanded their holdings beyond their traditional mainstays of Yangon and Mandalay, moving into second and even third tier cities across the country.

Mingala's most recent reopening occurred last week with The Shwe Hintha Cinema in Bago, which a few historically-minded locals claimed is one the oldest existing theaters in the country. The single-screen Art Deco movie hall, situated at one of the cities primary intersections, is now back to screening films on a daily basis following a few years hiatus.

A few shots of the Shwe Hintha Cinema c. 2010, before it closed down.

Plaster work signage of the Shwe Thintha. The name translates to Golden Brahminy Duck, which is the symbol of the Mon people, who founded the city centuries ago. 

But the good news doesn't stop there. A representative from Mingala Cinemas recently announced that renovations have commenced at their most recent acquisition, The King's Cinema of Mawlamyine, Mon State. 

The King's Cinema of Mawlemyine, the most recent acquisition of Mingala Cinemas, currently undergoing renovations

The famous sail sign on the front corner of the King's Cinema

The 72-year old "proto" Brutalist cinema hall, with its signature tiled sail sign facing onto the Salween River waterfront, has been out of operation since 2012. Its reopening will be a welcome addition to Mawlamyine's slow-moving renaissance and a valuable move in the realm of architectural preservation.  

Highly capitalized movie exhibitors aren't usually in the business of preserving historic movie theaters. Especially not in Southeast Asia, where historic preservation gets little traction to begin with. But Mingala Cinemas is doing just that. The company is equally committed to sustaining decades old landmarks as they are to growing their business. In an age of rapid development and the casting off of the old for the new, Mingala's approach to expansion is a breath of fresh air. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Sein Cinema - Paung, Mon State, Myanmar

The theater hunt occasionally leads me to a town that pleases the senses beyond the movie theater that brought me there in the first place. Count Paung as one of those towns. While Paung's humble little movie theater - The Sein Cinema - also contributes to the town's overall charm, it's some greater combination of scale and aesthetics that otherwise makes this place and others like it so mesmerizing.

Myanmar is stuffed to the gills with towns of this gauge; places that have not yet been reconfigured to accommodate car traffic, or otherwise augmented to conform with the often deadening logic of modern city planning schemes. Thoroughfares in such towns are almost always narrow. In Paung, the term lane best defines its roadways. Mature trees are everywhere, engulfing the mostly wooden building stock in comfortable shade. Along the most narrow of lanes, an elfin quality pervades. Miniature little places for happy people, living among the trees, whistling while they work. No, not really, but you too might succumb to such fantasy if you experienced it as I did.

Unfortunately, most of what I saw of the town came while being whisked around on the back of a motorcycle, leaving little chance of documenting this gnome-scaled city in all its diminutive glory. When I dismounted, it was in front of the Sein Cinema, which occupied all of my attention from then on out.

Unsurprisingly, the Sein Cinema is on one of the more ample roadways in Paung. Not the best representation of what this town is all about. But not the worst either. In reviewing these pictures, taken back in February, I'm reminded that even a typically grand structure like a movie theaters is scaled down for a fairytale land like Paung.

The Sein Cinema in streetscape context. The charm of towns like Paung come from a pre-industrial scale and aesthetic, and are compounded by the general lack of cars. But that's not likely to last much longer. 


Reflecting the internationalism of the times, graffiti for the band Slipknot is scrawled on the facade of the theater 


The Sein Theater reflects the cottage atmosphere of Paung at large. It’s neither grand and imposing, nor decorated in such a way as to distinguish it as cinema. From the exterior, it looks like a private home. If not for the sign mounted beneath the gable, it very well might be mistaken for that.

But along the side of the building, beyond a pair of folding wooden doors, lies the auditorium. Therein the elfin quality found throughout town in revisited. Everything about it feels hand crafted, one of a kind, and of course, built for pint-sized patrons.

Once inside the Sein, the handcrafted nature of it construction becomes obvious. Though only dating back to the 1980's, it feels like it could have been built in the 1920's or 30's. 

Wooden chairs comprise the seating in the balcony.

Straight-on facade shot of the Sein Cinema. Sein means diamond in Burmese.

That’s what makes these old school movie theaters of Myanmar so enticing. Because of the local craftsmanship involved, from the minute d├ęcor to the functional parts, it is endowed with a strong identity and sense of place. There is no other theater in the world that is quite like this one, and the same goes for the majority of the others.

In a globalized, somewhat homogenized world, that is hard to find.

Couldn't resist a shot with the gang of kids that followed me around while photographing the Sein.