Cinema experiences in Myanmar are certainly memorable, although not usually for the film itself.
First of all, I have to find the cinema. That can be a challenge in itself as there are several in the city but even my students can’t always tell me where they are! It’s also quite difficult to track down which cinema is showing what film as the websites I know of are rarely updated and the censors are quite selective about what films they show. Hollywood blockbusters are available but they don’t stay for long and are only shown by selective cinemas, so I have to be fairly attentive to worldwide releases if I am going to catch a film I really want to see.
I’ve managed to see Mocking Jay, The Hobbit and Insurgent, all series I originally started watching in the UK. I dread to think what Indie gems I’ve missed by being here though, and I really miss my regular Sunday outings to the cinema in MK.
However, my first visit to a Myanmar cinema was to see a nice little French film, shown as part of a European Film Festival last October. I was so starved of cinematic experience at that time that I would have happily sat through anything, including the dull Myanmar short about a family separated by work, reuniting over Skype while the child did her homework. It was only later that I realised the poignancy of that film, when I learnt that it was not unusual for families to be separated in this way and that going to Thailand was often the only solution many people have to earning enough money to support their families.
On that occasion, a mostly Expat audience gave me a feeling of being at home, the only real difference being that we had to stand for the Myanmar national anthem before the film. I could get a Coke and a box of popcorn and the tiered seating and red, velour seats were like a poor man’s West End Theatre. A golden curtain, breathing gently in the air-con, even covered the screen. It was very 1970s!
My other experiences have not always been quite so comforting. When I stumbled upon a cinema showing Mocking Jay, I immediately took the opportunity to enjoy another cinematic experience. I’d arrived just in time for the 3.30 showing (nearly every cinema in the city show films at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.30pm and 9.30pm for some strange reason), bought one of the last remaining tickets and rushed up stairs to the cinema.
Modern metal music greeted me as I entered and I found myself surrounded by a young audience, some of whom were ‘courting couples’ who were gently bringing back the meaning of ‘sitting on the back row of the cinema’ in the face of stringent cultural attitudes towards open displays of affection.
The trailers and adverts in Myanmar cinemas make me laugh. In some cinemas, after paying homage to the flag, film posters are displayed on the screen informing the audience of the films that are currently showing or will be showing soon. In some of the more modernized cinemas, real Hollywood trailers are shown as well, but it’s taken me several visits to learn this.
I still remember the amateur adverts for curry houses and electrical stores at Uckfield Picture House back in the day. Adverts in Myanmar can be very much like that. Or, even worse, a 1980s mixture that evokes cries of ‘Whoa, Bodyform!’ or ‘The Best a Man Can Get!’ that would get howled off any self respecting UK screen these days. Audiences chomp and chat and play on their phones during this time but I’d expect that anywhere, it’s not the film; it’s just the prelude.
I can also watch films in 3D. This surprised me, as I hadn’t expected any form of advanced technology here, but for a very reasonable price, you can see a film in 3D, with glasses provided. For additional reassurance, the little I-Dog comes onto the screen and I am transported back to the UK in an instant.
Finally, comes the film. At this point, I’m ready to absorb myself in the next installment of a series, or experience a unique story for the first time. I’m eager to know how the director has reimagined a book or idea, and decide whether it matches my imagination. I love the cinema because I can just drop into another world without the everyday interfering, and escape.
Not so in Myanmar. Often, I can’t hear the opening over the rustling and chatting that continues from the adverts; phones go off and are answered, in spite of the usual reminders to switch them off, and people regularly get them out, bright lights included, to play on them when they can’t understand what’s happening in the movie, which is, of course, most of the time. The films I have watched have always been in English but without subtitles (don’t ask me why, I have no idea!) and audiences are not always able to follow them fluently. Some of the more dramatic bits can be lessened by the over excited squealing of audience members (often American girls), or regular visits to the toilet (may be three or four times per film), by audience members in my row, can interrupt my viewing pleasure.
At times, I have felt like I am on the worst school trip ever, except I wasn’t the teacher and I was outnumbered by a cinema full to one. *Sigh.*
This is not unusual for audiences in Myanmar. I have attended several events, both public and within school, where the audiences have not paid the slightest bit of attention to what is happening in front of them. ‘Theatre etiquette’ is unknown here and I consider myself lucky if I manage to enjoy half of what I’m trying to watch. But I won’t stop going to the cinema because of it.
Cinema visits are still a very essential part of my aesthetic pleasure, and while they will never be completely satisfactory in Myanmar, my visits are better than nothing.