SUMMARY: Burmese writer Do: Na discusses the decline of subtle and realistic acting in Myanmar films. The writer contrasts the naturalistic performances of older actors like Maung Maung Ta with the overacting and posturing seen in many contemporary Myanmar actors. The writer also argues that better writing and characters as well as dedication to the craft could improve acting standards in Myanmar.
This article was completed under the ArtsEquator Fellowship. Views expressed are solely of the writer/creator.
If acting is a self-induced supernatural possession, a ghost with an unholy imitation of a human being seems to have taken control of most Myanmar actors today. Their intrusive frowning alone, misplaced and misused, is apt to depersonalize characters of all genders on screen. The question of when and how the rot sets in is worth a book-length discussion, and this article, within its available length, will focus on some specific elements of the whole-hearted performances from the past that once appealed to Myanmar audience, and compare and contrast them with the ones that breed contempt from the same people.
Doctor Aung Kyaw Oo, the titular character from a 1957 film played by Maung Maung Ta (1926-2015), is a charismatic villain. The married medical doctor chain-smoker swings his tight on his work table with one leg on the floor bracing stylishly his playful posture, and keeps puffing a cigar while he is flirting with a young attractive patient girl. Maung Maung Ta knows that his character is a ladies’ man and delivers it precisely with the confidence absent in today’s films.
The stunningly realistic way he fumbles about the clinic in anxiety before committing a crime paints the very picture of an actor who is fully immersed in the make-believe world of his character: the two souls living and breathing under the same skin in the same space at the same time. If it were today, we would be more distracted by all the stand-talk-sigh pretensions and hollow bodily expressions, than moved by the lean subtleties appropriate to a film’s context.
When it comes to scene and body, actors are usually arranged like toys in Myanmar films and this can be traced to the earlier black-and-white era of Myanmar cinema. It feels kind of anti-human to watch most scenes in Myanmar films that have characters talking with each other side by side – often one of them is delivering very serious lines while turning their back on the other character.
Sometimes it is all about an actor’s voice. In this aspect, Htun Eaindra Bo (1966-) often can communicate a reality with her modulated style of speaking in many of her films. Though this article is performance-specific – not dedicated to a particular actor – the actress-singer deserves a special mention for a special talent, not many Myanmar actors possess: her flair with the cool and collected tone even when she is acting in emotional scenes. In melodramatic moments, the soft tremble runs like ripples in the deep sea of her larynx.
In the 2019 psychological thriller Tha Sein Eain (Stranger’s House), Htun Eain Dra Bo plays a psychotic murderer, quite a role for an actress whose films have been mostly romance since she was young. Unlike, for example, Nay Toe (1981 – ) who shouts to scare in Tar Tay Gyi (The Great Ghost) which won him his third Academy award in 2017, Htun Eain Dra Bo’s character Daw Yin Yin makes our flesh crawl with the hypnotic effect of her voice in gory scenes.
Zaw Lin’s character Pan Aung in the 1996 film Pan Thankhin (The Flower Master) has to face more than enough drama from his physical disability, poverty, and family problems. When he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor posthumously in that role, there was a double satisfaction in that because it is a clichéd surefire academy-winning character, but Zaw Lin did not indulge in extraneous frowning, sighting, sideway looks and a torrent of tears and chose to express his internal conflicts through his eyes mostly.
The legendary five-time Academy Award-winning actor Kyaw Hein (1974-2020) would not fit here. His masterful expression of emotions through his eyes has already placed him in the pantheon of Myanmar actors. But he is prone to overacting and over-reacting with his somewhat harsh style of speaking – which often makes his characters look like they are unnecessarily angry and anguished. Zaw Lin tends to express more diverse emotions through his eyes than Dwe (1966-2007), whose dewy seductive eyes won the hearts of his fans of all genders. Dwe is an actor cut out for romance. Zaw Lin looks more nuanced in many roles.
For actors to get motivated to stretch the muscles of their talent, the story itself must be deep and wide enough in the first place for layered characters to play around. Romance and heavy drama genres have shrunk Myanmar’s film industry, and it seems like here an actor means an individual with a set of prefabricated bodily, eye and vocal expressions that can operate in many genres and stories of films. We cannot expect a Myanmar actor to immortalize the fictional existence of their character in our everyday life: for us to believe that that said character lives among us in this world.
However, Paing Phyoe Thu (1990 -)once turned our hope in a Myanmar actor right side up with her performance in the 2019 psychological romance Mi, which stars her in the title role as a chain-smoker femme fatale. Into the vortex of Mi’s misty life, Paing Phyoe Thu as much draws in the audience as her red flag character messes around with men and lures them to jump into it on their own. We fall for Mi’s mystic tears, the cunningness and devilment in her half-whisper, her self-destructive soul. But Paing Phyoe Thu as Mi is more of a standard, a notch, to look up than an exception. Passion alone can only get an actor so far. As in every other profession, to be a good actor takes passion plus obsession plus knowledge plus many more. Perhaps it all starts with the willingness to not frown too much unnecessarily.
Cover image sourced from Philip Jablon / The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project.