Even before Thai director Chartchai Ketnust put his efforts into the joint ThaiMyanmar project “From Bangkok to Mandalay”, he was thinking about making a horror flick. He even had a name for it – “Burmese Night” – and it was to be centred on the supernatural traditions of Thailand’s Western neighbours.
Now he is bringing that dream to life with the release in Thailand today of the Myanmar language film “The Only Mom”.
Already a blockbuster in Myanmar, taking around MMK1.5 billion (about Bt48 million), it is showing at the SF Cinema multiplex chain nationwide.
“In fact I was offered the chance to make a horror film before ‘From Bangkok to Mandalay’ but I convinced the producers that it would be better to start with a romantic drama,” he says.
Photographer (Daung), right, prepares a child before capturing her on a wet colloid plate.
For his previous outing, the director joined up with two Myanmar sisters who had won scholarships to study music and science at Mahidol University. They were unable to speak Thai and thus the working process took place in broken English. The script was translated into the local language a few weeks before shooting began.
“I can say about 10 Myanmar words. But language is not a barrier as we can understand each other through our body language. I also know much more about the Myanmar people and their culture. So when I’m directing, I can see through their body language whether they are doing what I want,” he explains.
Since “From Bangkok to Mandalay”, Chartchai has worked on such projects as the documentary “Yodia Thee Khid (Mai) Thueng”, which traces the fate of the Siamese captured by the Burmese army after the fall of Ayutthaya Kingdom, and another documentary exploring a Mae Fah Luang Foundation project designed to assist people in Myanmar’s central region. That took him to Yenanchaung, an arid area in Magway Division, about two hours from Mandalay and 10 hours from Yangon. It was here that General Aung San studied as a youngster. And so Yenanchaung was chosen as the main location of the film.
“That area is called the dry land and produces most of the oil and natural gas in Myanmar. I like the vast landscape, which is like a desert in the hot season but fills with water during the rainy season,” says the director.
Ang (Nine Nine) searches for the mystery behind the old photograph in his new home.
“The Only Mom” tells the story of married couple Ang and May (Nine Nine and Wutt Hmone Shwe Yee) whose daughter (Pyae Pyae) has an aggressive behaviour problem. The child is also far closer to her father than her mother. The family decides to move from Yangon to Yenanchaung in the hope it will help their daughter. Once there, they take up residence in a new colonialstyle house full of old photographs taken by the late owner, a professional lensman played by Daung. The move seems to suit the child although she starts sleeping during the day and remaining awake at night but her behaviour stabilises and she becomes closer to her mother. May is happy that her daughter is no longer turning her back on her but before long, strange things happen that appear to be related to the old photographs and so Ang starts searching for the truth before they lose their daughter for good.
The idea for the setting arose when Chartchai saw a photograph of Aung San, the late father of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, in every house he visited and wondered why the military regime tolerated this practice.
Then he learned about Nat, as the spirits of those who die unnaturally are known in Myanmar. A Nat is an aggressive spirit but one that is worshipped in the country. Thais will know the most famous of the spirits, Nat Boboyee, as Thep Than Jai Nat, who is said to grant you one wish instantly.
Myanmar has 37 royal Nat that can be monarchs, soldiers or alchemists as well as another group known as outlaw Nats. The Nat in “The Only Mom” is Ameh Jum, which is related to the mother element.
Real life Nat Kadaw U Hla Aye plays as Nat Kadaw but sadly died before the film was released.
Nat is the spirit of a person who was respected and powerful while he or she was alive but was killed in a conflict with an enemy. They are still respected once they become Nat and the powerful individuals involved in their deaths allow this as it doesn’t affect their power.
“I found that management of power interesting. However it’s from my own perspective, it is not grounded on any theory,” Chartchai says.
The Nat communicates with people through Nat Kadaw, literally “the Nat’s wife”. Similar to a medium in the Thai culture, Nat Kadaw is possessed by the Nat’s spirit though in Myanmar, she is a man dressed in a traditional female costume and dances during her possession. Men who are Nat Kadaw can be either straight or transsexual. In Myanmar, the Nat Kadaw is highly respected and is invited as a honoured guest for special occasions like the blessing of a new home or the opening the new company.
In the movie, a Nat Kadaw helps the couple to find their missing daughter and is played by a real Nat Kadaw, U Hla Aye. Unfortunately he died of a heart attack after completing his scenes.
Director Chartchai Ketnust, left, with U Hla Aye on the set.
The director also adds photography to the story, choosing the wet collodion process, which was popular in the 19th century and was often used when young children or infants died in the home to make them look like live subjects. Sometimes known as postmortem photographs, they served as memories of the deceased. Both the director and his cinematographer Teerawat Rujintham are interested in the old technology in which the photograph is printed on glass.
“It was popular in the west so I guessed it would be in Burma also,” he says.
Actress Wutt, who starred in “From Bangkok to Mandalay”, is convincing as the mother rejected by her daughter yet still desperate to protect her.
With the exception of Chartchai, Teerawat and acting coach Boonsong Nakphu, the entire crew is from Myanmar. The post-production work, however, was completed in Thailand.
Chartchai’s is not anticipating a major turnout in Thailand for his film so he has decided against the wide release he chose for “From Bangkok to Myanmar”.
“What I learned from ‘From Bangkok to Myanmar’ is that although there are millions of Myanmar nationals in Thailand, they don’t go and watch movies in the cinema. However, I want to show the movie to a Thai audience and hope it will teach them something about their Western neighbour.
“It is perhaps boasting on my part to say that ‘From Bangkok to Mandalay’ opened a new chapter for filmmaking in Myanmar, but it’s true. The movie opened the door to new generation directors to make their films and brought in new investors too. They are working hard to upgrade Myanmar movies so they can stand side by side with international films,” he says.
But even though the movie industry is booming, the movie theatre business is not. “They are worried about streaming though it has yet to come to the country,” he explains.
“I would like to thank Myanmar for giving me the opportunity to do what I love, which I still don’t have in my own country. And I am also grateful to the Myanmar audience for welcoming my work and giving me the courage to do another project,” he says.
He adds that he also prefers the way the movie theatre business is handled in Myanmar, explaining that it is far more transparent that the Thai system. There, the cash from ticket sales is shown on every theatre’s box office monitors and the income is shared with the producer every Friday rather than waiting for the film’s run to end.
Chartchai also admits to being in love with the Myanmar way of life. “It’s do different from the way Thailand is these days. There, we still see a flask with a glass in front of a house for passersby to drink. We see people laughing or crying in the cinema like in the old days. The people are humble and the landscape is magnificent. It’s an inspiring place to make a movie,” he says.
His next project is a TV series based on Thai-Myanmar history and starring Daung as the protagonist.