To Myanmar with love

A scene from From Bangkok To Mandalay. Photos: Magenta Film STudio

The big problem about shooting a film in Myanmar, says Thai filmmaker Chartchai Ketnust, was not obtaining permission. It was the mob of onlookers trying to get a peek of the stars.

“Once we had to call off a shoot because there were too many people crowding around our set,” says Chartchai. “Some of them who got there first called their friends, and they kept calling their friends and they all came by motorcycle. They followed us while we shot. Huge numbers. It was quite something.”

That was unexpected, though not totally unexpected when Chartchai was working with three top Myanmar superstars in the Thai-Myanmar production From Bangkok To Mandalay. Shot on location at various cities in Myanmar, the film has given Sai Sai Kham Leng, a Shan hip hop star with 4 million Facebook followers; Wutt Hmone Shwe Yi, one of the most popular actresses; and Nay Toe, a good-humoured singer/actor, a massive fan base. In a story about a Thai woman who travels around Myanmar to relive the romantic memory of her grandmother, who once had a Myanmar boyfriend, the main Thai cast member is Pilaiporn Supinchompoo.

From Bangkok To Mandalay opens in Myanmar this week (a sneak preview has attracted considerable attention). The film, which features Thai, Burmese and English, will open in Thailand next Thursday.

Chartchai is known as a post-production specialist who has long tried to shoot a feature film. Originally he wanted to do something small and quick, but when he was introduced to a Myanmar investor a few years back and when that country began to open its long-shut doors, the script grew out of the opportunity. When top Myanmar stars agreed to be part of the film, things took off.

“The title From Bangkok To Mandalay was actually a working title,” says Chartchai. “But it stuck. Everyone involved knew it by that name, and it fell on me to create a story that would fit into the title.”

That story is a romantic one about a young Thai woman who, after unearthing her grandmother’s love letters, sets out on a journey around Myanmar. From Bangkok To Mandalay can justly boast that it’s the first Thai-directed movie in decades — the project is a Thai-Myanmar joint effort — to have shot at several iconic locations in Bagan, Sipo, Mandalay and Yangon. Much publicised is the scene at the Sea of Pagodas, usually thronged by tourists, where a couple sit and talk overlooking the profusion of majestic spires.

“First we had a permit from the Ministry of Information, the central agency that supervises film shooting. We had to submit the script and everything,” says Chartchai. “Then at each location we had to get a local permit again. Shooting at popular attractions wasn’t difficult actually; it was when we wanted to use a government location that was tough. For instance, we wanted a scene in a post office — it sounded simple, but it was unprecedented for a movie to be shot in a post office, because it is government property.”

Chartchai Ketnust, seated, on the set of From Bangkok To Mandalay.

Long isolated, Myanmar has set itself on a path of optimism after the recent elections. Before the military dictators took over the country, Myanmar, like other countries, had an active entertainment scene with a number of films made and cinema halls at every block. The lights were practically turned off for nearly half-a-century after the military takeover — though film, television and music were still produced — and now with the promise of democracy and openness the country seems ready again to step into the limelight.

Each year around 20 local films are released in Myanmar. Early in 2017, there will be another Myanmar-Thai film coming out in both markets: a romantic caper called TT Donut, shot mostly in Thailand and starring Myanmar actor Pyay Ti Oo and Thai star Chattarika Sittiprom.

Otherwise Myanmar audiences, like other countries in Indochina, have had a degree of familiarity with Thai entertainment products, mostly television programmes aired or smuggled across the region. In 2014, Thai film producers organised a Thai Film Festival in Yangon in the hope of improving business between film professionals of the two countries, meanwhile the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation is also enthusiastic in promoting the activities of local filmmakers. Three years ago the Thai film Pee Mak Phrakanong was a big hit in Myanmar, while Thai television series have had a solid fan base there.

“Myanmar at this moment is a paradise of filmmakers,” says Chartchai. “The audiences are ready to receive new things. They give off this sense of openness — they want to laugh, they want to respond to the story on the screen. In a way, they are still innocent, and I mean it as a compliment. At the sneak preview of From Bangkok To Mandalay, people laugh at every joke in the film. You can no longer see something like that in a Thai audience.”

opens in Thailand next Thursday.

From Bangkok To Mandalay


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