RANGOON — 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 mustache 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 Rangoon’s Little Hollywood, they sit on tiny plastic chairs, glowering, spitting carmine betel-nut saliva onto the ground. They wait, and wait, and wait some more, stalking a quarry that is becoming ever more elusive: a day’s work.
For decades, as Burma 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 on shiny, globalized levels.
The struggle is a microcosm of change in Burma, whose military dictatorship handed power to a civilian government in 2011 after elections the previous year. What happens when the world opens up to you? For Burma’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 early 1980s and became a fixture in such Burmese staples as “The Bad Guy with a Pure Heart.”
“In other countries,” he says, “villains don’t have to walk the streets to get their jobs.”
Each morning, the bad guys of Rangoon 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 bottom-budget videos, a few dollars here and there, perhaps not even practicing the villainy that has been their bread and butter for so long.
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 a sausage-grinder glut of 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 favor 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” and “Wolverine,” pointed up the lack of production values in the homegrown, B-movie culture.
“I worry very much these days. I used to work nonstop. But I haven’t had regular work in six months,” says Phone Naing, 45, a movie villain for the last quarter century. His compatriots nodded vigorously. Things have gotten so bad, he complained, that directors will press their film technicians into service to play bad guys.
“They’ll be working on a set and someone will say, ‘Hey, can you be a villain?’” Phone Naing says. “You use cheap villains, you get what you pay for.”
Membership in the villains’ union helps, a bit. Some of the group’s 100 members contribute money to support others. And this year, a coalition of stars got together to donate 100 bags of rice each month to the society. A Yaing Min points proudly to a recent newspaper tabloid that shows him receiving rice from actress Wut Hmone Shwe Yi, Burma’s latest It girl.
Burma’s movie industry is organized in a unique way. Actors and actresses congregate—form unions, develop health care plans, lobby for benefits—based on the roles they play on screen. There is an aging mothers’ guild, a spinsters’ guild, a comedians’ guild. It is typecasting, pulled into the real world.
The villains’ union was founded in 1990 to offer such assistance. Myint Kyi, 73, one of its founding members, talks not only of aging but of the injuries that many villains suffered during filming of acrobatic, athletic scenes that usually were done without any stuntmen.
“There was no one to help us when we die, nobody to pay for our funerals or help with our hospital bills when we were injured,” says the soft-spoken Myint Kyi, known for the 2000 movie “Blood: A Love Story” and probably one of the few villains seen in public wearing a fanny pack.
He learned his craft from a 1950s screen villain known as “Spear Prince.” It was not exactly a safe apprenticeship. “I would get cut all the time,” he says. Once his mouth was cut open and he had to have surgery to fix it—on his own dime.
These days, in the hierarchy of movie roles, comedians seem to fare better. Perhaps because Burma is hungry for laughter, not villainy, most movies made inside the country these days are comedies. Thus, those who make people smile are higher on the food chain. This is of no small import to the villains, befuddled by a world where the jokester outpaces the scoundrel.
Just up the street, clustered around a plastic table drinking tea, the comedians see it differently. Kyaw Htoo, one of Burma’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 Burma, “they let Father die, they let Mother die. It’s cheaper to have a boy without parents.”
“We face the same obstacles,” Kyaw Htoo says. “There’s just not enough money.”
The numbers seem bleak. Last year, just 17 feature films were produced, down from more than 60 five years ago, according to the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization. By contrast, more than 1,000 videos were made—and that official figure probably excludes hundreds of others, according to U Aye Kyu, a screenwriter and the organization’s vice president.
“When we were young, it took many months to shoot a film. Casting was careful, and people were committed,” says Aye Kyu. “I’m worried. If they just show foreign films, that’s bad news for Myanmar movies.”
One contributing factor: whether a coherent international strategy for Burmese movies eventually emerges. Few Burmese films have gone beyond the country’s borders, says Tom Vick, author of “Asian Cinema: A Field Guide,” and those that have are more on the serious side—hardly the crime-and-potboiler fare that these villains are accustomed to.
“They’ve been thinking about the local audience and what a local audience wants to see. The question is, would any of these films translate well or will they only appeal to people there and just be a curiosity in other places?” says Vick, the curator of film at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer/Sackler Gallery.
“They have to decide how to focus their film industry,” Vick says. “Once countries open up, suddenly Hollywood dominates the movie screen. … If ‘Skyfall’ is taking over, what hope does a local filmmaker have?”
That’s precisely the worry that consumes our Central Casting of villainy down on 35th Street. Accustomed for so long to being despised and loving it, they never imagined they’d wind up at the margins of the Burmese show-business caste system, lost in a confusing landscape after being so delightfully nefarious to so many for so long.
“I want to see our industry be alongside the international movie industry,” says A Yaing Min, the bearded King of Cruelty. “But you have to think of the right people for the right characters, or we villains are done for.”