“To the world we are known as Padaung.
But our true name is KAYAN.
To the world, we are thought to be from Thailand.
But we are hill tribe people from Myanmar.
To the world, we are photo opportunities in mock villages on the Thai border,
But we are a proud people. Proud of our culture, our traditions, and our beauty.
We are KAYAN.”
Myanmar has a rich and extensive film history. Dating back to the silent era, Myanmar quickly emerged as one of the early film markets in Southeast Asia. Ohn Maung was the first director and producer in the country’s early cinematic movement and is considered the be the father of Burmese cinema. The silent era saw the rise of a number of major production companies in Myanmar including Maung’s own The Burma Film Company. The country moved into the sound era with Tote Kyi’s Ngwe Pay Lo Ma Ya (Money Can’t Buy It).
The 1930’s saw an outpouring of filmmaking in Myanmar, including an increased interest in political films. The student film Boycott was the most influential of a flurry of statement films that emerged from the growing market. This trend continued over the next several decades and the output of political films from Myanmar largely contributed to the nation’s massive film production. At the height of its film industry in the 1950s and early 1960s, Myanmar had hundreds of screens and filmmakers were largely able to create films that took strong stances as long as they slid a little cash to the censors.
Despite this active market for film, political turmoil in the decades since the golden age of Burmese cinema has destroyed virtually all preservation effort. While this period of artistic activity is well documented, the films themselves are overwhelmingly lost to history. This is a familiar story for a nation that went through a period of strong nationalist rule and eventual uprising, but it’s devastating nonetheless, particularly given the trajectory that Myanmar was on in terms of its contribution to world cinema.
The rise of socialism in Myanmar in 1962 lead to an increased scrutiny from Burmese censors. Strict oversight eliminated the creative freedom that had allow the Burmese film industry to flourish. The government attempted to take over the industry entirely, but after a failed effort with the propaganda film The Beloved Land, control reverted to the heavily censored private film industry.
The 8888 Uprising, named for the date of its peak on August 8, 1988, was a popular democratic movement in Myanmar. Started by groups of student protestors, the uprising saw violent nationwide clashes against the oppressive socialist regime that had ruled the country. The uprising ended when the military removed the sitting government and elections were instituted.
Unfortunately, the rise of democracy in Myanmar did not lead to a recovery of the film industry. Censorship remains a strong force in the ultra-conservative country. The era after the uprising was also marked by economic distress and sanctions which limited the ability of Burmese filmmakers to import equipment needed to keep the industry going. Conservative views have created an environment where the socially conscious films that drove the golden age of Burmese cinema are few and far between. Nyo Min Lwin’s 2016 film The Gemini was the first Burmese film to directly address LGBT issues. While the film itself is not artistically revelatory, it’s notable as a social breakthrough. Bigotry remains a rampant problem in the Burmese film industry and filmmakers often use their art as a platform for negatively portraying already marginalized groups.
Kayan Beauties directed by Aung Ko Latt is a 2012 Burmese film which follows a group of four young Kayan girls on a trip to the city of Tuanggyi. The film largely focuses on Kayan culture both internally and externally, beginning in a small Kayan village but frequently showing the reactions of the city dwellers who are surprised by this centuries old culture entering their midst. The Kayan people are largely known to the world by the neck rings which adorn their women. The brass rings give Kayan women the appearance of having extremely long, thin necks. The origins of this peculiar attire are not known with certainty, though the film’s characters regard it as a trait which will bring the wearer glamor and beauty.
The brass rings play a significant role in the film, and early on we see the excitement of the youngest of the girls, Mu Yan (Rose Mary) when she learns that her parents have saved enough money to get her rings of her own. Through gestures like this, the film lovingly portrays the culture and traditions of the Kayan people and pays great reverence to their role in the history of Myanmar.
As much as Kayan Beauties is a reverent exploration of a marginalized cultural group, it is also a harsh condemnation of cultural exploitation. The poem which closes the film, and with which I opened this essay, references the fact that the Kayan people are often incorrectly referred to as Padaung and have their cultural heritage incorrectly tied to Thailand even though they are historically native to Myanmar. Their settlements have come to survive on tourism, a practice which is referenced in the film. While this routine has brought some economic stimulus to the ancient tribe living in an increasingly modernized Myanmar, there is a clear feeling within the Kayan community that this practice has turned their people into tourist attractions. Visitors often pay to photograph women with long lines of brass rings around their necks. The film’s spotlight on the exploitation of the Kayan people and focus on the problem of human trafficking implicitly make Kayan Beauties a strong statement film about modern society’s commodification of the vulnerable.
The film itself feels like some cross between thriller and documentary. Much of the first half of Kayan Beauties is the build up to the girls’ trip to the city and the early exploration and culture shock that they deal with. The low budget location shooting and amateur actors lend the feeling of authenticity as if we are watching actual day-to-day life. However, the film takes a dark turn when Mu Yan is separated from the group and ultimately abducted by human traffickers. The second half of Kayan Beauties explores the dangerous side of Burmese life and warns of the true horrors that one can face particularly when lost in an unfamiliar language and culture. The film builds to a rapid but action packed climax and an emotionally gut wrenching ending. The power of the film’s final moments genuinely caught me by surprise, and perfectly encapsulated Kayan Beauties as both a cultural lesson and a profound tale of human tragedy.
The pacing of Kayan Beauties is undeniably impressive. In a tight ninety minute run time, it introduces an array of secondary characters and subplots without losing sight of its main thread. It addresses the idea of native Kayan people leaving for perceived greener pastures in the city. It contains an impactful dynamic between one of the girls and her ex-boyfriend who fled their village to make a living in Tuanggyi. Throughout their brief trip the girls are exposed to many aspects of more modern Burmese culture that both excite and confuse them. It’s hard to find a moment that could be trimmed from Kayan Beauties’ final cut and the film’s wide emotional range is delivered with quick but believable and effective shifts.
Though the film hasn’t garnered much international attention, it was well received within Myanmar. It took home Best Cinematography and Best Sound at the 56th Myanmar Academy Awards, and in 2014 it was honored for its contribution to Kayan culture and history. It’s a shame that the film has not seen more widespread exposure in the film community as the story is effectively told and powerful. It is an engaging and thoroughly entertaining tale which also sympathetically portrays an underexposed cultural group. The film is also surprisingly well subtitled for a movie with little international distribution. I didn’t find it to contain the broken English or dropped lines seen in many lazy, low budget translations.
Sadly, there is no high definition release of the Kayan Beauties available anywhere. There is a DVD that was released in Taiwan, but as far as I can tell it only includes Chinese subtitles. However, the film is available in its entirety on YouTube with, as I mentioned, surprisingly superb English subtitles. Unfortunately, the version on YouTube is heavily pixelated so much of the film’s detail is lost, but it’s well worth enduring a subpar transfer for the opportunity to enjoy what is truly a gem of world cinema.
Hopefully films like Kayan Beauties will help to reinvigorate filmmaking in Myanmar. As a social statement it hits on many of the problems that keep Myanmar’s film production from returning to its former glory. It also addresses major issues in Burmese society that deserve close examination. Kayan Beauties is one stepping stone in a movement to see greater freedom and enlightenment in Burmese art, and one which might help to move the international spotlight in the direction of the once prolific Burmese film industry.