Hollywood Calling for New Burmese Film

By Simon Roughneen 17 March 2014

RANGOON — Shooting will begin this week on what backers hope will be Burma’s first international cinematic success, a venture undertaken by House of Media Entertainment (HOME), a production company headed by the well-known Burmese comedian and former political prisoner Zarganar.

“Mudras Calling” sounds like a familiar tale—in search of his roots, a young man ends up finding love instead. But the production will be set against what might be some unfamiliar backdrops for foreign viewers, with the cast and crew heading to Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake for filming at three of the main draws for Burma’s small but growing tourist market.

The movie’s makers hope to sway organizers of major film festivals to include “Mudras Calling” in their schedules and to pique the interest of international TV networks.

“On Wednesday we’ll start shooting in Bagan. By late summer, we hope to be ready to launch,” Mona Strassburger, the film’s producer, told The Irrawaddy.

“Mudras Calling” centers around Jaden, a Burmese-American who travels to his homeland to research the country’s traditions but ends up falling for Hnin Thuzar, “a proud Burmese woman who graduated from the University of Culture in classical dance.” The movie will be directed by filmmaker Christina Kyi, who like the movie’s central character was born in Burma but raised in the United States. It stars Zenn, another US-raised Burmese, along with two actresses making their feature-length debuts—Shan model Nan Wai Wai Htun and Hla Yin Kyae, a model and actress who has performed in short films.

“We’re trying to make a positive film that shows off this country, so that’s why we are going to these beautiful locations,” said Strassburger, a former public affairs staffer with the US entertainment conglomerate Fox. Hollywood contacts could help make “Mudras Calling” the first Burmese-produced feature film to generate interest outside the country, following the success of several Burmese documentaries and foreign-made films about Burma.

The Burma government seems keen to push the country as a location for movie shoots, handing out a document titled “Plans for Tourism Development through Creative Industry” at the opening of the 2014 Asean Film Festival in Rangoon on Monday morning. Speaking at the festival opening, Deputy Minister of Information Paike Htwe said that “Asean member countries can raise their income through film industry while promoting tourism.”

In late 2011, as a reward for reforms such as freeing political prisoners, Burma was granted the 2014 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a role it took up in January.

Prior to 2011, Burma’s film industry was subject to decades of censorship by the county’s military government, a system that spawned a mix of crude nationalistic agitprop and hammed-up melodrama.

Since then, however, a transition from rigid military rule to an army-backed civilian government has seen a relaxation of rules and, perhaps, a chance for long-suppressed talent to flourish.

“We can do different kind of movies now and there has been some improvement from before,” actress Thinzar Nwe Win told The Irrawaddy.

As part of Burma’s post-2011, film censorship has been relaxed, though not eliminated, while the Ministry of Information (MoI) is currently drafting a new law for filmmakers.

“Last year we had to submit a list of films we showed and a copy of each to the MoI,” said Thu Thu Shein, cofounder of the Wathann Film Festival, an annual documentary and short feature showcase, who added that officials raised no objections to the content.

As well as helping promote Burma as a tourism destination, the government sees a continued role for filmmaking in official propaganda. “The more important power of a movie is to build a national characteristic of a country. It can control social stability and the country’s territory as well as strengthening the country’s unity among nationals,” said Paike Htwe at the Asean Film Festival’s opening on Monday.

Nonetheless, Thu Thu Shein said Burma’s filmmakers nowadays have the chance to push boundaries in a way that would have been impossible prior to 2011.

“Compared to the past, it is more open,” she told The Irrawaddy.