Do not be deceived

Luke Corbin reviews the new film “Deception,” in Yangon theatres now.

A new film has gripped Yangon this past week. New York-educated Director Christina Kyi and her husband— also the movie’s star— Zenn Kyi have succeeded in crafting and exhibiting a thematically dense, tightly woven thriller that stands head and shoulders above its class: this is no “silly movie”. After the screening of their first Myanmar film Mudras Calling was prohibited, their second effort, Deception, is finally here and proving popular with cinemagoers.

This is despite heavy backlash from film industry conservatives who have lambasted Deception as being too similar to other romantic thrillers, in particular Derailed, directed by Mikael Håfström and starring Clive Owen. Such criticisms run hollow given these critics’ own oeuvres, which feature consistently similar plots and narratives: the rehashing of basic plot structures such as “three flowers” is rampant across the history of Burmese cinema; it is a trope, and a defining feature.

While these particular criticisms are misguided, established Burmese film directors (mentioning some names may only bridge the divide – but their vitriol on Facebook is not hard to find) are right to feel threatened by what Deception represents. It’s a wake-up call for a staid industry which is reluctant to allow in new voices.  For while Deception does follow many genre conventions, it navigates them in refreshing ways that Burmese audiences are eager for.

Deception begins with husband Min Htet, a quiet, successful art dealer, and Zin Mar, his physically frail, demure wife, living together in a large mansion near Nine Mile in Yangon. Not everything is rosy, especially in the bedroom, but they are patiently and contentedly beginning their married lives – that is, until new neighbours Emily and Thein Soe arrive next-door. What follows is a twisting story of love, desperation and (misplaced) kindness, with more than one death, betrayal and redemption.

Although parts of the narrative are a little drawn-out, for the most part the emotional beats are carefully dispersed and the story moves convincingly forward. Where the film truly shines is in its overall tone, its self-awareness and its careful representation of class and gender in Burmese society. While recognisably a “Burmese” film, there is a reflexivity and tenderness behind the film’s production that is seldom seen on the silver screen in this Golden Land.

The film shares many categories with its contemporaries, replicating cinematic patterns that are familiar and in-demand by Burmese audiences, but it mostly refrains from the toxicity of what are often considered “mainstream” representations in Myanmar. It is familiar enough to bring viewers in, but different enough to leave them thinking.

For example, the “baddies” in the film are poor people from the countryside while the “goodies” are rich people from Yangon. But both are rendered with complexity: the rich are shown to be a little too greedy, a touch unscrupulous, in part deserving of their misfortune, while the poor are humanised and ironically assigned a role of moral educators, encouraging the rich to share their wealth. Furthermore, gender norms are subtly subverted – while women in the film are still the “tempters” of men, aligned with alcohol in their threat to male power, so too does the film depict an abusive relationship of gender-based violence, where masculine extroverted displays of aggression are shown as both vulgar and unjustified.

Scaling out from the text itself and once again putting ourselves on the streets of Yangon, it’s worth noting that Deception screens this week alongside Kyi Lay Kyi , a supposed-comedy saturated in rape culture, with colourful marketing that promises light-hearted fun and innocent village antics: here is a film wherein lies a real, insidious deception. Watching the two in succession gives the viewer a sense of the spectrum of possibilities for Burmese film. Deception only shines as further informed, respectful and brave when compared in such a light.

For outsiders, every Burmese film presents a rich vein to tap for understanding this nation’s culture and society, but they often leave a bad taste in the mouth given their poor production values, self-censorship and at times problematic politics and representations. Rarely does a Myanmar film manage to do what Deception does, straddling a fine line between conservatism and change.

See Deception if you can, evaluate it honestly, tell your friends and support these filmmakers. Myanmar needs more like them— these are the people who are pushing the industry forward.

Luke Corbin is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Australian National University and Endeavour Scholar, Gender Equality Network. Hear more from Luke on Myanmar Musings, at http://www.myanmarmusings.com/