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Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: Alan Tobey
  Photo: Alan Tobey

Burma: The Blockbuster
By Shane Cowlishaw

Yangon is not your everyday city. It’s a place where $900 a night hotels, desolate colonial architecture, and extreme poverty come together in an unusual form of mismatched harmony. A friend once described it to me as a place he’d love to come and explore but only when devoid of people. It would definitely make the perfect ghost town.

Despite the excitement of returning to Yangon, we were tired coming to the tail end of a month's travel in the golden land; and on returning to the capital for a second time, we longed for western comforts. Having found, skeptically ordered, and then enjoyed an fantastic cappuccino, we walked out of the cafe and noticed that next door was some sort of cinema. A man dangling perilously from a rope several meters above us drew our eyes to several magical words lettered on an old New York style theater marquee.  007, James Bond, they announced.

Peeking into the doorway, we discovered a life-size cardboard cut-out of Daniel Craig looking very suave in his tuxedo and omega watch. This unexpected sight coaxed us to explore further.  Through exaggerated gesticulation we established that tickets cost just $0.80 USD and that it was even shown in English. We couldn’t buy tickets fast enough. The price was so ridiculous that I wanted to buy 10 and just give them away (I managed to refrain). After dawdling round for an hour or so, killing time by debating whether the ice-cream from the vender outside was safe to eat, it was time to go in; and grasping our newsprint tickets, off we went.

The first surprise was the security check. Standard procedure for all movie buffs was a walk through the metal detector followed by a pat-down and bag search. Considering that upon our arrival from Thailand we walked right into the country without so much as a question or suspicious glance, the procedure seems slightly out of place.

After clearing security, we discovered our seats were on the ‘upper level’. The balcony was palatial, and we found our seats in the first class area; they were in the front row. The muli-tiered theater looked to date back to the colonial times.  It had ornate light fittings and a red velvet curtain waiting to part and deliver us Bond.

As far as we could see, the only foreigners aside from us were a greasy, mustached Greek man and his two teenage sons sitting behind us, all dressed in matching skin-tight white pants. Suddenly a blast of music beckoned for our attention, and the curtains began to open. The locals all began to rise. A gigantic Burmese flag spluttered onto the screen, and it was time for the national anthem. This presented a moral conundrum for us. The Burmese government is not an entity that one wants to show their allegiance to.  We were at a loss. I looked back at the three fashionable gentlemen behind me and noticed that they also seemed overcome with ambivalence. Finally, with a few shrugs and eyebrow raises we decided to get up, and we jumped up just as the trumpets began to blare.

It was with great anticipation and a touch of apprehension that we sat down to await our fate. A blast of static resolved itself to reveal a selection of increasingly bizarre advertisements for some strange Indian potions; they boasted the ability to cure a multitude of ailments, but offered no hint as to exactly which ones.

Moments later Bond appeared on the screen to applause. The outrageous scene set in an exotic locale that opens each Bond movie began, this one set in Madagascar. I remember at this point thinking that the city I was now watching the movie in would make a perfect location for one of these openers and wondered if it had already been used in the franchise before.

I snapped back to attention just in time to see the hero cause the equivalent damage of the Kosovo war in a matter of minutes. Then I noticed something particular happening. The end of the action scene seemed to cue the entire movie theatre to form into small groups that started to chat amongst themselves. The reason, we figured out a few minutes later, was that the movie lacked any subtitles, making it particularly difficult for the native Burmese speakers to understand. They were trying to make sense out of what they were watching.

This phenomenon continued throughout the movie, and the noise made it almost impossible for us to follow the dialogue. The cacophony only paused for the easily understandable action scenes and the few innuendos and tame love scenes that had made it past the strict censors, the locals enjoyed them nevertheless.

Eventually the film ended; and as we rose to leave, I noticed a strange crunch following my steps. Looking down, I could see that the entire floor was covered with sunflower seed husks. I noticed that a few locals were still munching on bags of them. Looking over the edge of the balcony down upon the lower level, I beheld a sheer ocean of these husks, an immense carpet of them strewn everywhere. It was a bizarre sight to behold.

As we walked out to the street, I noticed the marquee guy was still hanging from ropes on the roof. I started taking a photo of him when I was reminded that despite the espresso and Hollywood blockbuster, I was still very much in Burma. An official popped out of nowhere flapping his arms about wildly, indicating that I needed to stop taking pictures post haste.  Having encountered this several times on our journey around the country, we knew not to push our luck and strolled away without fuss, already trying to digest the movie that had turned into a full blown cultural encounter. Myanmar is many things: beautiful, tranquil, harsh and frightening—but one thing it will never be is easily understandable.


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