Q&A: The Mystery of Burma director Arkar

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Director Arkar on the scene of a shooting for a commercial. (Facebook)

A slew of young filmmakers have shaken up the Myanmar film industry so far this year, with social media playing a key part in spreading and promoting their work.

One of the filmmakers, Arkar Win, is leading efforts to prove that Myanmar filmmakers are moving away from poorly-made clichéd tropes and producing films able to compete in an international market.

Initially shooting documentaries, commercials, and music videos, Arkar moved to the big screen in 2016 with the filming of adventure movie The Mystery of Burma. The trailer piqued widespread interest on Facebook and queues of people buying tickets for the film snaked out of cinemas in May. The director talked with Min Ye Kyaw about his break into the industry and love of Indian films.

Why did you decide to pursue filmmaking?

Before, I was in satellite engineering and didn’t have plans for filmmaking. I thought a Myanmar movie couldn’t appear in the foreign film market and if it did it’d probably just reach Singapore or Bangkok where there are many Myanmar citizens. I dreamed of
a Myanmar movie going global—that was what I wanted to do. But I was an IT guy, not a filmmaker. Then filmmaking turned digital and everything you needed to learn was available on the Internet. My little brother was making songs, so I shot his music videos as a kind of testing ground. When I lived in Singapore some directors from Hollywood recruited part-time crews, which I joined on daily and hourly rates. Techniques I learned during this time I have adapted back here in Myanmar and finally I changed my whole
career to filmmaking. In 2016 we went to Bangkok for a TV commercial and the company offered us an opportunity for film production.

When did you get started in filmmaking?

In 2011, but it was 2012 when I came back to Myanmar and founded my own ARKAR Production company and officially started my career.

What film has inspired you the most?

I like Hollywood blockbuster movies—not most superhero films, but fantasy ones. For example, The Lord of the Ring for fantasy and Unbroken by Angelina Jolie for realism. I like almost every movie of Christopher Nolan, a master at both directing and script writing. His Batman series, Inception; they have inspired me a lot. Also Peter Jackson is really talented at fantasies and production design, for example The Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit. But films that have inspired me the most are Indian, like OMG – Oh My God! It’s similar to Myanmar—they made a film about the misconceptions of their country, with fewer visual effects but with a strong concept. Indian movies have better scripts than Hollywood movies.

Tell us about your latest film, The Mystery of Burma. How did you come up with the idea?

When I was working in Singapore in 2011 and making short videos of my own, Jeffrey Mitchell, the elder brother of former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, contacted me to make a film in Myanmar and offered a budget. He had some financial backers in LA. I asked my younger brother to write a script, but the budget was not enough to cover the film so we cancelled the contract. In the meantime, we updated the script and in 2016 we
got the necessary budget.

What is your current assessment of the Myanmar movie industry?

I guess everyone has seen a big change in the Myanmar movie industry since the start of 2018. It’s much stronger than previous years, and the impact has been as big as the change from keypads to touchscreens on mobile phones. Some people from the film industry have been left behind, but the audience is really stoked by seeing current films. But we still need improvements to challenge the Southeast Asia film market and we have a long way to go before reaching an international audience. I hope we improve and reach a
certain level in the next 10 years, although I really like the changes so far in 2018.

TV or Netflix series are arguably more popular than ever. Would you like to make one, and what is the difference between shooting a series and movie?

I would like to make a TV series; I have an offer already. But I don’t have a good script yet so it will be on hold. I also have films coming up and our production company needs to strategize all the marketing and promotions of the films. But I am looking for a good script and if it goes well I will make a mini series in 2019. For the differences, we get more time for TV series and to construct each character in detail. For a film, we must make sure all the necessary climaxes in the plots are covered. It must be commercial and all the cast must be obvious. Also a movie takes at least one year or beyond to shoot, but a TV series only takes about six to seven months.

Do you have any advice for young Myanmar filmmakers?

We all started there, so don’t listen to negative comments. Some say filmmaking is not a good investment of your time, but if you really want to be a good filmmaker, make up your mind and shoot what you want—don’t be afraid of feedback. Just keep on trying in whatever you are good at and one day, some producer will find you, and give you a chance. Don’t think if it’s small or big, do your best and keep on your projects.

What projects do you have coming up?

After The Mystery of Burma Part 1, we have a horror film, Tin String, and a family drama, Two Worlds, which describes the love between a father and his little girl. We also have a collaboration coming up with a Thai director and actors, scripted by a Thai writer. We will start shooting in July and hopefully it will come out in October, November. But we’re not sure whether it will screen in Myanmar this year because it may be chosen to take part in a film festival at the end of the year. Hopefully, we can screen it in Myanmar around 2020. One of the villains from a Jackie Chan movie will take part in this movie and well known actors from Asia will be casted, too.

Describe your ideal perfect day as a film director.

Well (laughs)… if I get to wake up early, I eat breakfast alone and go out to the balcony. Then I sit in the computer chair and research for my films—like which content I should curate and what my movies need. At 10am, my office starts running stuff like sending quotations, script writing, discussing schedules for shootings, etc. By 6pm, everyone stops working and gathers for some barbecue dinner or plays some games along with drinks. And 8pm afterwards, we eat dinner and go back on the Internet for entertainment or have a conversation with friends. By 10pm I watch Netflix, TV series and then go to bed around 1am. That’s all.

Watch the trailers for his upcoming films Two Worlds and Tin String below.

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