Christina Kyi’s rise from unknown filmmaker to household name was a slow burning fuse – but one that eventually detonated a fireworks display. Rumours of her debut film Mudras Calling first circulated in 2014 but due to a variety of delays, the completed film didn’t make its way onto cinema screens until March 2018. But while the world waited, Christina worked and her second film Deception was also released earlier this year in January. The hype that had fermented in those four years created an unforeseen explosion of interest, with Deception lasting for a record eight-week screening. Now Christina is working again, scouting locations for her latest film, that notoriously tricky third creation, with her company Central Base Productions.
In person Christina is petite, elegant and warm; the moments of intensity in front of the camera are frequently broken by a laugh as she catches the eye of an onlooker. Watching her in the photo shoot, it’s clear that Christina moves every bit as easily in front of the camera as she does behind it. She finds the light, knows her angles and stares the down the lens unafraid. It’s no surprise then to learn that Christina first wanted to be an actress.
“When I was young I knew I had a love for film, but all I saw was pretty girls on the screen,” she says. “I didn’t know about the creation behind the scenes. Being a filmmaker is not a usual dream for a Burmese woman.”
But for Christina, who studied filmmaking at Gibbs School in New York, the change in decision to become a director came almost as a necessity as she planned to move back to Myanmar. “In Myanmar, they normally focus on the main actor and he often has the chance to choose the actress he wants to work with, she explains. “But I wanted to act in really good stories, not follow a man or be the love interest. I decided not to act until I found my own story.”
Christina’s switch from actress to director was encouraged by her boyfriend at the time Zenn Kyi, who is now her husband. As in life, the two go hand-in-hand in the film industry with Zenn starring in both his wife’s films and writing the script for her second. 15 years ago, it was Zenn who first inspired Christina to write Mudras Calling while they both lived in the United States and she listened to the way he started to speak Myanmar language with an accent. “I thought about the idea of being in between two cultures. Burma and the United States both have two beautiful cultures, but people tend to focus on the differences,” she explains.
But though Christina first intended Mudras Calling to be a pure love story, it was not fated to be that way.
“I got pregnant, and then I lost the child. He lived with us for only 55 days.”
The shock and trauma of losing a baby is one that clearly still haunts Christina, she reveals that she had depression for three years following the tragedy and even now fights tears as
“So when I was writing the script, I didn’t want to make a love story anymore. I decided to make a story about the love between a mother and child, about parents who had lost a child. I put all my emotion into it. I imagined what it would be like if I had died first, and then my son would have been like Jaden.”
Jaden, the hero of the film, returns to Myanmar as an adult having lived with adopted parents in the United States for most of his life. It’s a story about finding your roots, understanding the unity between cultures and the connection between parent and child. The film is personal, haunting and cut through with mesmerising shots of Myanmar.
“I decided to include lots of the locations that I went to when I was pregnant with Tristan, his name was Tristan. We had travelled a lot, places like Inle Lake and Bagan, which is where I poured his ashes in the river.”
Christina described the process of working together with her husband to make such a special film as “a blessing” and though nothing can heal the pain, Christina tells me that she is now mother to her second child, a son who looks a lot like his brother.
Talking more about working with her husband Zenn, Christina tells me that their relationship on set developed for their second film Deception.
“He is totally different on set. He even looks different to me, like another person. He studied method acting, so if he has to be angry for a scene, he is angry all day!”
Though this may seem strange, Christina takes a different view saying, “As a director I’m happy to see him taking his job seriously. I stay back because I want him to focus. I learn from him and it also helps to keep our worlds separate.”
One of the contributing factors to why Mudras Calling and Deception were released at the same time, despite being made years apart, was partially due to the censorship board who are responsible for scheduling screening dates. Their process can mean long delays for first-time directors, especially female ones at the helm of a project with an unknown cast. Christina admits she faced adversity when trying to raise interest in her film but it didn’t stop her from seeing the projects make it to the screen. “For my first job, I’m not sure if it was because I’m a female director or because I look like a baby, but some people laughed at me and some people complained. Sometimes it hurts me, but my job is more important than the way they treat me. Even when they put me down, I don’t want to change my path. I want to finish my job. That’s how I cope with it.”
Myanmar is well known for having strict censorship laws that restrict what is screened. For Christina, the censorship board are an omnipresent force.
“Whenever I want to write a story, I think about the censorship board first. It’s always in my mind. You pick a safe story. For me, as an independent filmmaker, we’ve borrowed money from a lot of people, I can only make one film per year and so if they censor that movie, it’s over for me.”
However, Christina remains cautiously optimistic that times may be changing; “I think it’s getting easier, I hope so. But you can’t really be sure because they change their systems all the time and no one can guarantee you what kind of story you’ll be able to show in the theatre.”
These strict controls on creativity have had a lasting impact on Myanmar film and although the industry enjoyed a golden era in the 70s and 80s, standards have plateaued in the years since. Plots are thin, colour mixing and visual effects remain rudimentary and the over-acting of stereotype roles is widespread.
As with other international film academies, Myanmar’s has been criticised as being staid in its preferences and resistant to the vanguard in favour of the old. Although up to 900 films are made in Myanmar each year, the Myanmar Motion Picture Academy only selects around 12 for award consideration, signalling both the low standard of the films and the insular preferences of the board. Earlier this year a scandal emerged when a group chat between many members of the Academy was leaked, showing that they had been discussing the Kyi couple and making disparaging comments.
With awards seasons looming, I wonder if Christina is hoping for recognition despite this but, smiling, she shakes her head.
“I don’t really think about the Academy. For me, the audience are more important. I have learned a lot about the Academy and I already know that my type of acting won’t fit with their style – but I don’t care!”
Earlier this year the growing divide between the established and emerging filmmakers was thrown into sharp relief when well-known actress Swe Zin Htaik described the two camps as “villagers and urbanites” implying the lack of sophistication in films made by inveterate film companies. Swe Zin Htaik, also a member of the censorship board, has previously spoken out against the Myanmar film industry, describing the quality of films as “hopeless” and pointing out the need for more female directors in the industry.
Christina takes a more diplomatic view of the situation. Crediting her time studying film she explains; “To me, it’s just about systematic and unsystematic. Making films systematically just means making the film properly, making it the way that other world-famous films are made. It will all change with a new generation who’ve learnt properly. Hopefully the old generation will change too, they can learn from each other.”
To end, I ask Christina about her new project. Though she remains tight- lipped for the most part, she will reveal some details. “It’s a deep love story. Everyone can relate. It’s kind of sweet, but not overly happy. I’m hoping it will be released next year.” I wonder if this will be the love story that Christina set out to make all those years ago. Time, although hopefully not too much, will tell.
Clothes by Kaung Myat
Hair and Makeup by Lin Linn
Director’s Chair kindly lent by Sirboni (sirbonifurnishings.com)
Check out the trailer of Mudras Calling below;