Translation: Hsu Myat Lin Naing
Photos: Thin Myat Noe
Both on and off-screen, Daung – arguably Myanmar’s most sought after male lead – is inspiring a new generation of Burmese talents, helping the country’s film industry to finally break ground in South East Asian markets. A self-proclaimed artist and creative force, the soft-spoken man with model good-looks is blazing an idiosyncratic path on his way to inspire the country towards social change.
Before meeting, all I had been told of Daung was that he was “the cute guy that all the girls in Myanmar love.” Every person – to a fault – had said the same and not a word more. Taking these undemanding observations at face value, I was in for a shock. Within a minute of sitting across from the polite, bespectacled actor, it is evident that there is a whole lot more to the extremely unassuming, pensive and youthful looking man that we are chatting with.
Daung, star of the international award-winning film, The Only Mom, is also a poet, a former professional footballer, an artist, and a musician so talented that he is set to release an album with the biggest band in Myanmar. Despite this, I could, of course, also see how Daung has been exasperatingly tagged with the ‘cute guy’ label.
“It’s always followed me around – even at school, where I wasn’t too interested in studying, I was one of the best at music and sport so I was popular with the girls. If anything, I’d prefer to appeal to both male and female audiences – my ethic is that through my acting I can present the real life of people in Myanmar to the world – people in Myanmar face numerous difficulties and, by adopting various male roles, hopefully I can both influence and inspire people who associate with these situations.” He says softly, quickly moving our conversation onto more highbrow matters.
What really hits home upon meeting Myanmar’s leading young male actor is how extremely modest he is – polite and thoughtful without any of the affected airs and graces that you are often greeted with in Yangon’s Cele scene. What strikes you next is that the man means business – he has undoubted depth of character and creativity: an extremely talented polymath of the performing arts, Daung brings a refreshing intelligence and conscientiousness to the table. He reiterates constantly that his end goal is to make work with a social impact – certainly a convincing mascot for the generation of more radical and free spirited Burmese artists and celebrities who are rapidly finding their voices.
“If I am not enjoying work, if I am not giving back with my work, I will simply do something else.” Daung is remembering his days as a striker at Mawlamyine’s Southern Myanmar FC, but the sentiment sums up his entire ethic. After forging an eclectic career based on the experimentation of his many talents, the 30 year old Burmese superstar is finally revelling in his creative prime as a powerhouse of Burmese cinema. And it is not only within Myanmar that Daung is making an impact.
Last month’s Asian Academy Creative Awards could represent a sea change in the Burmese film industry’s fortunes. Leading the charge for the country was The Only Mom – a domestically produced horror movie led by a Thai director and crew. Not only did the work meet exceptionally good reviews across the board in Myanmar, it was met with acclaim with audiences across South East Asia. Female lead – and frequent counterpoint to Daung’s male roles – actress superstar, Wutt Hmone Shwe Yee, was invited to host the Singapore based awards,at which eleven year old Myanmar actress, Pyae Pyae, won the award for Best Supporting Actress. Overall, an understated yet gigantic achievement for the Myanmar film industry that has long struggled to garner attention overseas.
Whatever the case, Daung admits that the night marked a significant milestone in his own career. “This was a pivotal moment for me. Last year, everything changed.”
A Peacock’s tale
Daung’s transfiguration into Myanmar’s hot cinematic property has been a relatively quick affair. His life as an actor began late – around five years ago – yet now, at thirty, he is being touted as Myanmar’s biggest future star.
Born in Minhla township, Bago region, Daung grew up in Mandalay where, by fifth grade, he was teaching himself traditional Burmese songs on guitar. As a child he soon began expanding his musical ability across the board. By tenth grade, he had moved to Yangon as a self taught singer-songwriter intent on making a career in the city’s music industry. However, whilst preparing for fame in the creative sector he was scouted for Southern Myanmar FC, the Mawlamyine club based, as the majority of Burmese football teams, in Yangon. In 2012, he was signed up as a striker. After a few years of playing second fiddle to the senior more dominant, yet perhaps less talented players he decided to quit.
An ambivalence towards the status quo and limiting occupations is something that you sense is ingrained in Daung’s character. There is no doubt that the man is classically ‘cool’, an endearing feature for an actor, and something somewhat lacking in Myanmar’s contemporary film industry.
As a committed musician, the star’s transition to acting was made reluctantly. Whilst making ends meet with various occupations in Yangon, he was signed by leading production house, Satori.
“People at the time wanted to compare me to Ye Dike, but we were always very different.” He quickly moves away from the controversial subject that has long been unfairly mentioned in lockstep with discussions of his early career. Indeed, whilst being a free spirited careerist, Daung also has a well earned reputation as ‘the nice guy’ of Burmese pop culture. His work and actions as a celebrity are famously measured and well-respected by Myanmar’s general public. “As an actor, even from the Satori days, I never chased the money. I didn’t go to the big events or fancy parties. After Sartori had shown me what an actor could be capable of, I used my time to learn my craft. I studied the psychology of acting and became fascinated by how the minds of characters, the minds of real people in Myanmar, can become different through different life experiences, and especially through different politics.”
Five years in, Daung had yet to accept much work in feature films. The lead roles that he did play – 2015’s The Second Heart and 2017’s Little Umbrella Story – were, however, both huge domestic successes. “At this time, I chose only to promote with work that was beneficial to the Myanmar people, work that was either more interesting or ethical.” Eventually – despite being picked by Satori from hundreds of candidates and groomed for greatness -, Daung split with the production house to follow his own artistic dreams. “I chose to be a ‘celebrity’ because I feel in this way I can better speak to the public, educate others about the minds and lives of Myanmar people, and hopefully bring positive changes into the future.”
One legacy of his Satori days that remains is his name: Daung, or Peacock. The classical, colourful, dramatic emblem of both the Burmese Konbaung monarchy and the anti-colonial nationalist movement. But don’t read too much into this. “Satori wanted to give me a new name, and I wanted something unique. They pulled out a long list of names, and I chose ‘Daung’, that’s all!”
On a bigger stage
After setting his sights firmly on an acting career with Satori, it was not long before Daung was being courted by other producers for larger roles. By his mid-twenties, his face was well-known by the general public through his film appearances, his modelling, and, famously, his appearance at NLD events at the time of the party’s coming to power. At one rally in Magway, an image of Daung handsomely wearing a rose amongst the many NLD supporters went viral. His good looks and political convictions had been revealed together and, at once, a huge number of Myanmars fell in love with the young actor.
The looks, the poetry, the absolute rejection of contrived commercialism in his work, the free spirit: when considering Daung, one could certainly be forgiven for thinking we were in the presence of éminence grise of Myanmar cinema, the venerable U Kyaw Thu. This is a comparison that pleases Daung. “Yes, you are right. U Kyaw Thu has his own particular ideas and perceptions – and, following this, he does whatever he wants to do.” In 2017, another huge breakthrough: the two male leads finally worked together on Myanmar’s most watched television drama of all time, MRTV-4’s Bagan Myo Thu (Bagan Girl.)
However, it is another parallel that Daung consistently refers to as he speaks which holds greater similarities – that of Leonardo Di Caprio, Hollywood’s most lauded pretty-boy slash social activist. Dressed casually, with low key glasses and the floppy hair and timid boyish smile of a younger Leo, Daung says: “A lot of my acting is self taught. At Satori, when I studied by myself, the actors whose films I watched the most were Di Caprio and Tom Hanks. I must have watched all their masterpieces ten times over to observe their character development.”
Since then, Daung says, he has relied more on his own style. “Before filming I learn about my character – the persona and mind of the person I will play. Then, on set, I totally clear my mind and play out the role the best I can. Lead acting relies a lot on the mutual responses between the actors on set, and it helps when a director can channel these to create the responses he wants.”
To this end, the Thai director of The Only Mom, Chartchai Ketnust, takes many plaudits from the young actor. “Working with Chartchai Ketnust changed everything for me – it was the first time that I really experienced coaching to such a professional level. His support took my acting to a new level – he allowed me to find new depths in my on-screen character.”
And the feeling or professional respect between Daung and the Thai director is mutual – following the success of The Only Mom, Daung has been filming in Bangkok, preparing to star in a Thai television series. My role, however, has not been without its challenges: “It has been a huge career move filming with a Thai crew, but as yet I still cannot speak any Thai! Every single line of dialogue that I have filmed has been learned by heart, by sound!”
The art of cinema
The star’s most recent work is the controversial Confession of a Woman – a cinematic critique of marital relations based on the classic book by Myanmar’s leading feminist author, Juu. Assuming the persona of Yu Maw, a manipulative workaholic and misogynist, Daung had his reservations before finally signing on to the film, declining it before reexamining the message that he could convey by playing this controversial role.
“Originally, I said “no” to the film. I didn’t like the character of Yu Maw – a conservative historian with obtuse political opinions who lives with his mother. It was my least favourite work of Juu, and it took a lot to try and understand Yu Maw’s perceptions, especially on gender issues. I finally took the role as a challenge and as a way of portraying the character to audiences in a way that makes people discuss and challenge Myanmar’s social situations – and by acting with the female lead to portray different male and female perspectives on screen. I was greatly influenced by the similar role Di Caprio plays in the film Revolutionary Road.”
The film has been met by a raft of discussion, praise, and criticism, something that pleases the actor. “I believe that as an actor I have a responsibility to influence the public towards positive changes. I have been involved in politics even before I was an actor, and this is something that I have dedicated myself to in interviews and work my whole career. My roles try and persuade citizens to get involved in making better decisions and changes for themselves and for our country.”
When asked if he therefore considers himself more than an actor, he replies; “Absolutely, I am an artist – a poet, painter, musician. Above everything, I enjoy creating things that I believe in. I have always preferred to stay closer to artists and celebrities who care more about their work than public attention.” I ask him about his poetry – widely publicised on his Facebook page. “My biggest inspirations are Myanmar poet Thu Kamain Hlaing and William Blake (English mystic). I ask him to read one of his own, and he picks something entirely in-fitting with the mood of the interview:
Of the poem: “I was inspired by the late musician Htoo Eain Thin who once said that each artist should have his or her own ethic in life, and stay true to this despite the challenges and obstacles we face. I have my own ethic to which I try and stay true to, and I hope this work captures it.”
Not only does the actor engage in transcendental poetry: he paints (influenced, in his words, primarily by Dutch impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.) But let us save that discussion for his first exhibition. What is currently more salient is Daung’s music career. Reaching for his AirPods, he hands them to me – “From my upcoming film, Rosella.” He plays a piece which he has written and performed in its entirety – keys, synth, guitars, soft vocal track included – and it is very good.
When pressed on rumours of a first album, he replies;
“Yes! I have actually been in the studio for four years with Iron Cross. The album is almost ready.”
“Is that a secret?”
“Yes, at the moment.”
“Can I publish that scoop?”
“Sure, please do.”