Bad guy blues: Myanmar villains struggle to get by

Masses are turning away from overwrought Burmese action movies,and opting for romance,comedy and Hollywood epics.

Written by Associated Press | Published: October 29, 2013 1:35 am


In a dimly lit alley on a cramped side street of a teeming Southeast Asian city,the ‘bad guys’ cluster together,plotting their next move.

There is A Yaing Min,the King of Cruelty,who twirls his moustache as he talks and cultivates a pointy beard with a pointed message: Mess with me,and I will end you. There is Myint Kyi,who has been dispatching enemies — typically with spears — since 1958. There is Phone Naing,muscular and sinewy in tight military pants,who talks only in a low snarl.

Granted,these are not actual evildoers. They are longtime cinematic villains who gather each morning in a tightly packed enclave of video production houses,movie-poster studios and worse-for-wear apartment buildings that serves as the tattered ground zero of the Burmese movie industry. In the heart of Yangon’s Little Hollywood,they sit on plastic chairs,glowering,spitting carmine betel-nut saliva onto the ground. They wait,and wait,stalking a quarry that is becoming ever more elusive: a day’s work.

For decades,as Myanmar endured dictatorship and international isolation,these actors were the twisted faces of wrongdoing that the country’s struggling film industry showed the Burmese people in movies that rarely made it out of the country — and even more rarely dealt with anything that really mattered. Now this nation is opening to a wider world brimming with pop-culture choices,big-budget special effects and international bad guys who jet from Stockholm to Shanghai to wreak destruction.

The struggle is a microcosm of change in the country once known as Burma,whose military dictatorship handed power to a civilian government in 2011. What happens when the world opens up to you? For Myanmar’s movie industry,one of the answers was this: It got harder to earn a living being evil. “The market is in trouble,” says A Yaing Min,a former boxer who turned to on-screen villainy in the 1980s. “In other countries,” he says,“villains don’t have to walk the streets to get their jobs.”

Each morning,the bad guys of Yangon and their brethren — all members of Ko Lu Chaw,or “Handsome Guy Group”,effectively a trade union for cinematic villains — arrive at dawn. They take up position at outdoor breakfast stalls along 35th and 36th streets,order coffee or tea,and hope for work. It comes more rarely every day. When it does,it is hardly lucrative — a day or two on low-budget videos.

Several things made this happen. The government privatized the state-controlled film industry in 2010. Decaying theaters,unable to afford new digital systems to project DVDs,began to close; today,many sit crumbling on street corners. Films were supplanted by cheap home videos made in mere days,even hours.

The masses began turning away from overwrought Burmese action movies,electing — in,finally,times of tentative hope — to favour romance,comedy and supernatural horror. And,of course,the arrival of movies from India,South Korea and Thailand,plus visually arresting Hollywood epics like The Amazing Spider-Man pointed up the lack of production values in the homegrown,B-movie culture.

“I used to work non-stop. But I haven’t had regular work in six months,” says Phone Naing,45,a movie villain for last quarter century.

Membership in the villains’ union helps. Some of the group’s members contribute money to support others.

These days,in the hierarchy of movie roles,comedians seem to fare better. Perhaps because Myanmar is hungry for laughter,not villainy,most movies made inside the country these days are comedies.

Just up the street,clustered around a plastic table drinking tea,the comedians see it differently. Kyaw Htoo,one of Myanmar’s best-known,says the video industry’s rise glutted the market for everyone,not just villains. And like so much media today,an easy overabundance means cheaper production values. He talks of Indian movies with multiple generations in the same movie. But in Myanmar,“they let Father die,they let Mother die. It’s cheaper to have a boy without parents.”

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