Crash and burn: Why Myanmar action movies fail

Myanmar-made action thrillers can face a struggle to secure screen time in a fickle movie market dominated by two multiplex companies.


SPARE A thought for the makers of Myanmar action movies. After its debut creation, Dimensions, crashed in early 2018, Bonanza Production remodelled its action-thriller theme for City Hunters.

While Bonanza used the same fresh-faced cast and crew, the film had a bigger budget, more elaborate killings, and a protagonist with God-given good looks capable of executing two-metre karate-style kicks. That City Hunters still flopped suggests the action movie genre is doomed in Myanmar. 

But what can you expect from a film industry that believes audiences will be satisfied by action movies with childlike fistfights, poorly executed pyrotechnics, unconvincing gunfire and repetitive scripts? It’s a ridiculous and sad picture.

Many in the industry lay the blame at least in part on two companies that operate a virtual duopoly on cinema screens.

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“We need to massage cinema owners, fan them and bow down to them every night,” said veteran action film director U Thiha Kyaw Soe.

Thiha Kyaw Soe said cinema owners were so powerful they needed to be added to the list of the five infinite venerables that are traditionally revered by Buddhists: the Buddha, his teachings, members of the monkhood, parents and teachers. “We have six now,” he said.

A new screening system has increased the power of the two dominant multiplex operators, Mingalar Cinema Group and JCGV, to decide which films would be served to the public. Previously, films were allocated a slot by the Myanmar Motion Picture Development Department (MMPDD) after they had been reviewed – that is, censored – and approved for screening.

But this created a large backlog and meant approved films faced an unbearably long wait to be screened. The Myanmar Motion Picture Organization (MMPO) came up with a new screening system in late 2017, under which cinema owners simply choose which films they want to screen.

Films still have to go through the censorship process and receive a number from MMPDD, but it no longer guarantees them a showing in a cinema. Mixed in with the handpicked movies are those that were caught up in the backlog prior to the introduction of the new system.

The system not only gave the cinema chains more power, it also created tensions between them. You might have made a potential blockbuster but if your production is screened by one, it will never show at the other. (An exception is Line Walker 2, a Hong Kong production that shot scenes in Yangon in February this year and opened in both chains on August 8.)

A thumbs down from Mingalar Cinema Group will mean a movie will not screen in two-thirds of the country’s cinemas; a “no” from both groups is the death knell for a production.

An example is Gila. Directed De Htel D, a member of the Rawang ethnic group in Kachin State, the film was shot in the group’s language with Burmese subtitles. Visually and stylistically haunting, and set in the deep jungle of far northern Kachin State, Gila could have made a hugely positive contribution to action cinema in Myanmar – had it not been spurned by both multiplex groups, that is.

The bad reputation of home-grown action movies meant that the producers of Dimensions and City Hunters were more at the mercy of cinema owners than filmmakers focused on other genres.

“When we went to see the cinema owner, he didn’t even look at the trailer. He just said there is no market for Myanmar action films and he didn’t take our calls later,” said Daw Wutyi Hnin, the managing director of Bonanza Production.

She declined to name the cinema owner, but both of the films were screened by JCGV rather than Mingalar Group.

U Myat Khine Soe, manager of Mingalar’s marketing and advertising department, said the cinema chain considered the lead actor “the most important thing” for a film’s success in today’s market. “He must be someone who can appeal to a general audience. In our case, superstars like Myint Myat,” he said.

Myat Khine Soe said there was “quite a difference” between the target audience of Mingalar and its rival, JCGV. “It’s true that [the films] we choose [to screen] are basically comedies. This is because our target audience come from the lower social class.”

While Mingalar has 51 screens, according to Ministry of Information figures, its power comes from its partnership with another smaller chain, Paradiso, which has 25, and a number of smaller regional cinemas. JCGV has a similar relationship with Mega Ace, which gives them a combined 37 screens.

In both partnerships, Mingalar and JCGV choose what will be screened – making them the undisputed kingmakers in the film industry.


Chicken curry or fish sauce?

“I still remember the advice he gave me to survive in the Myanmar film industry,” Wutyi Hnin said, recalling that the cinema owner likened well-made movies to chicken curry and trashy movies to fish sauce.

“He asked me why I wanted to give the Burmese chicken curry when they could live on fish sauce,” Wutyi Hnin said, adding that she knew what really lay behind this comment.

“When audiences begin to show a preference for well-made movies that are different, there will be no room for the films that are infesting Myanmar cinemas, and the people behind them,” the filmmaker said.

However, she said that the audience was both the victim and one of the culprits of the poor offerings in cinemas, with many people flocking to lowbrow, escapist films.

Thiha Kyaw Soe agreed that cinema-goers could be more discerning.  “Myanmar people are so dramatic. We want to see actors crying deeply, laughing hysterically, and everything over the top,” he said.

Myanmar movie audiences may have been fed “fish sauce” for decades but most fans of action films grew up on a pirate DVD and satellite TV diet of big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas and blockbuster Chinese kung fu flicks. This has heightened their disdain for made-in-Myanmar action films, and positive exceptions are unfairly dismissed out of hand, said Wutyi Hnin.

“Myanmar has a huge fan base for foreign action films, but when it comes to home-grown productions they think it will be just another junky comedy,” she said.

“If the bar for drama is this high, then for action it is way above it,” said U Nyan Htin, director of Dimensions and City Hunters.

There seems to be some truth to this. Two recent hit drama films, Mudras Calling and Deception, have been credited with heralding a “new wave” of filmmaking in Myanmar. Both Dimensions and City Hunters compare well with these dramas, but received a much cooler reception from cinemagoers.

With arresting cinematography, Dimensions wickedly imagines large-scale crimes and has an ambitious storyline: the villains conspire to make a fortune by contaminating Yangon’s water supply with a virus and then selling the necessary antidote. It took the prize for Best Music at this year’s Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards. City Hunters was a more extravagant production, with greater bloodshed, though it was marred somewhat by a mundane plot.

But some movie-goers stuck to their prejudices.

“You don’t need to ask if Myanmar is ready for action films; that’s why I didn’t see their second film,” moviegoer U Win Kyaw Thu told Frontier. “Even John Wick has to struggle to surpass itself every time,” he said, referring to the 2014 American action thriller and its two sequels.

Wutyi Hnin said she was aware that some of the production values, including props and the use of locations, could have been better. “But this is the best we can do in Myanmar because we face considerable constraints,” she said, adding that the biggest constraint was finances.

Thiha Kyaw Soe said that shooting in Yangon for Line Walker 2 included scenes where two or three cars were burned. “We can’t even afford to crash a motorcycle,” he said, but added that a strong story counted more than spectacular scenes.

Crafting a strong story though often means having to navigate restrictions from the censorship board. “[It’s difficult] to make a film more natural; we can’t even have small human moments, like a kissing, in our films,” Thiha Kyaw Soe said.

Ma Aye Pwint

Ma Aye Pwint

Fat cats

The politics of Myanmar cinema is dominated by a small number of A-list actors and directors, whose presence is thought to safeguard a good box office return. There are so few of them that the academy board has for years been handing out trophies to the same four or five actors. Most stick closely to the drama genre; it’s hard to imagine them getting their hands dirty in an action thriller.

Thiha Kyaw Soe said a cinema owner had once told him that if he wanted a planned production to get into cinemas it would need to include top star Nay Toe, a three-time Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Award winner for best actor.

“But everyone knows Nay Toe is not available until 2021 when he is free of all contract obligations. What did he want me to do – lock up all the scripts I have and die without even making one of them?”

But Thiha Kyaw Soe said that even if Nay Toe begged to be in his film, he’s not sure whether it would be a good idea. The relative lack of cinemas – Myanmar has just 171 screens, probably less than one-sixth of the number in Thailand – and the rivalry between Mingalar and JCGV means the potential returns for filmmakers are small. Spending a lot on a big name increases the overall risk, Thiha Kyaw Soe said.

“I invested billions [of kyat] in [2016 action film] Ma Aye Pwint, with its superstar cast,” he said. Even though the film was considered a success, “the return was just a fraction of what I spent”, he added.

“Now, instead of spending K100 million on a film with many stars, I make two movies with the same amount and use up-and-coming talent.”

Finding fresh faces comes with its own challenges, though, because of a lack of quality training for aspiring actors. While there are many acting classes available, most churn out actors for the bread and butter productions characterised by overacting.

“In India, you can’t be an actor if you can’t dance. We don’t need to ask what Hollywood stars can do. But what makes a Myanmar actor a Myanmar actor?”

Perhaps it is weeping – after all, most film stars in Myanmar seem to have won their academy awards for crying on camera. City Hunters took a very different approach. At the end of the film, the femme fatale emerges in an all-black outfit and blood red lipstick, and takes control over a male-dominated gangland. It’s tempting to imagine that, if Bonanza makes another action thriller in the future, this home-grown heroine could become a favourite of Myanmar audiences.

For director Nyan Htin, the commercial failure of Dimensions and City Hunters has left him disillusioned about the prospects for quality action films. He said that Wutyi Hnin and Khar Ra, the male lead in the two films, were also reluctant to make another action move.

“I don’t want to make action films all the time,” he said. “More likely I’ll make dramas later.”

TOP PHOTO: Ann Wang | Frontier

By Myint Myat Thu

By Myint Myat Thu

Myint Myat Thu joined The Myanmar Times as a reporter in 2015 and later worked as a cultural writer at Myanmar International Television (MITV). She now works as a freelance journalist and researcher focused on the development of Myanmar's film industry and arts economy.
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