Inside and Outside the Frames of Money Has Four Legs
by Myint Myat Thu
Myanmar filmmakers, make sure your lighter is fine and well-fuelled always. This is one of the unstated messages in Money Has Four Legs, a satirical film about a young filmmaker in a tight corner as he makes his first feature film.
The story plays out in a society where one’s passion to make a decent film invites a parade of emotional suffering, with censors, self-serving executive producers, and unprofessional crew and cast among the guilty parties. And yet sometimes, in the case of the protagonist Wai Bhone, it only takes a broken lighter during a desperate time of need, for his swallowed stale feelings to give way to a raging psychological avalanche. What Myanmar filmmakers have to confront is not only the four-legged beast, money, but also its many cousins, mainly the politics – the multi-headed ogre as symbolized in the film’s poster.
Money Has Four Legs premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in October 2020, making it the first Myanmar film eligible for the New Currents competition section. Also, as a film “to celebrate the 100 years of Myanmar Cinema” which fell on October 13, 2020, Money Has Four Legs could be the best birthday gift to Myanmar’s film industry. The best because by centring the story in the area around 35th and 36th streets in downtown Yangon – the home of film production companies in Myanmar – the film acknowledges the role that filmmakers played in this hundred-year journey even as they are vilified at large for the slow drop in standards of Myanmar cinema in recent decades. The best because it politely applies heart-warming, gentle humour to the not-so-pretty face of the place. The best because its intention is sympathy, not derision.
“Without those mainstream films which are usually produced with much less artistic investment, it would be impossible for Myanmar’s film industry to have survived. Independent and arthouse films just represent 5% of the total output at most. And yet, it is impossible (in most cases) to make an indie film without sourcing filming equipment, crew and professionals from the mainstream side,” said Maung Sun, the director of Money Has Four Legs.
“But this could be a different story if you are a millionaire who can afford foreign workforce. For now, the reality is that film crew and professionals here have to rely on the mainstream market for their living. So, let’s first put aside whether Myanmar’s film industry has developed or did the opposite in hundred years, or whether you like it or hate it. By and large, we need to acknowledge the existence of this (mainstream film) industry, and the fact that it carried on the legacy of Myanmar cinema.”
Wai Bhone’s filmmaking life is deprived. He struggles to regularly pay the rent of a shabby apartment in the film business quarter. Though his wife is employed, the combined earnings of the two can barely cover the living expenses and the tuition fees for their only child. But things are not that black-and-white to romanticise Wai Bhone as a talented young filmmaker whose career is only being encumbered by ill fate. Some occasions in the film give us cause to question his professional ethics and competency as a director, such as when he allows his drunkard brother-in-law to slob around on set, even letting him play an extra while intoxicated; his period piece – for which he often provokes his money-minded executive producer with his wish to make it “artistic” – looks just indifferent.
However, simply seeing most Myanmar films and its filmmakers like Wai Bhone as junk and junk makers – which is a commonly held viewpoint among many Burmese people – is like turning a blind eye to all those indelible cracks that Myanmar’s film industry has had to sustain due to the nation’s many political crises of the past hundred years. Wai Bhone and all the Myanmar filmmakers in real-life are part of the countless by-products of a “bruised colonial past” which remained unhealed as Myanmar entered into decades of military dictatorship and ongoing internal armed conflicts.
At the heart of the junta’s once well-oiled political machine was a poor education system designed to diminish one’s critical and creative thinking capacities. Cinemas across the country were also nationalised in the 1960s and the rough hands of censorship of the military socialist government took a firm grip on the whole creative process of a film – restricting purchase of celluloid film a, controlling film scripts and, censoring completed films.1 These restraints continued even as the production of films declined to around 20 per year, eventually knocking the whole industry down – the effects of which were being felt even up to recent decades. At the same time, the only tangible change Myanmar’s film industry has seen so far in the time of the young underachieving democracy today is the soaring “quantity” of films – to such an extent that there is a huge backlog of over 200 films waiting to be screened now, some produced over five years ago.2 As for the drop in standards, there is no simple explanation. As Lawyer U Than Maung said on DVB’s talk show program, LawLab, on November 15, 2016: “While the undertaking of the development of the whole country has been under a lot of strain, it seems unfair to lay blame solely on the film industry for its merit downfall. As with any other issue, Myanmar’s film industry is interlinked with many other sectors in the country.”
“Once we had to deal with a corrupt government. Now we have to live with an underachieving government, whose efforts towards change and reform are inefficient. Myanmar’s film industry suffers between these two governments,” said Ma Aeint, the producer and co-writer of Money Has Four Legs (alongside Maung Sun).
What many Myanmar filmmakers, including Maung Sun, are hoping to receive from the government in honour of the industry’s hundred-year legacy is not film funding or allowance – though they will be glad to receive some – but the new film law that will send the existing and outdated Motion Picture Law (1996) into retirement. The law has several holes in it, particularly the lack of importance it gives to film production as a transparent economy, with accessible box office data; funding for the development of the film industry and; film education. But the all-powerful, yet shapeless film censorship section of the law is colliding most with the realities of the 21st century. Lacking details on what should be deemed as inappropriate, the film censorship in Myanmar is a part of the die-hard dictatorship ideology that still breathes under the thin skin of the ageing law.
Money Has Four Legs opens with an overbearing film censor dictating what should be changed in Wai Bhone’s scripts. This introduction to a Myanmar filmmaker through the revelation of the lack of democracy in Myanmar’s film industry, is both funny and fraught. But the possibility of whether this opening scene could be seen by Myanmar audiences in full, without being censored has been giving Ma Aeint, a lot of headache these days. “If the budget of your film comes from funding or, you are a someone who makes films just to see by yourself or show it elsewhere except in Myanmar, you will be immune to the censor-induced anxiety. Once you start thinking to screen your film in local cinemas – because you have thrown a fortune into your film – the censorship begins to hover above your head,” he said.
This is one of the major reasons Myanmar filmmakers are hoping that the new motion picture law would be enacted as soon as possible. The drafting of the law began in 2012 before the current ruling party National League for Democracy (NLD) came into power in the 2014 general election. Over eight years have passed since then – with NLD even winning a second election in November 2020 – but the film law draft has yet to reach parliament. According to U Myo Zaw, a filmmaker and a member of the motion picture law drafting committee at Myanmar Motion Picture Organization (MMPO), finishing the draft was delayed due to differing views between U Lu Min and U Zin Wine, the former chairmen of MMPO – which led U Zin Wine to revise the draft after taking over the office from U Lu Min in 2017.
“We hope to submit the draft to Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union) in 2021. As to the expected time for the bill to be passed, honestly there is a long queue of other very important bills waiting at the parliament to be viewed. We had to prioritize those which carry more weight than others, and I believe that the motion picture law is extremely important. So I would say it won’t be long, but will also take some time,” said Daw Phy Phy Thin, a House of Representatives MP for Mingala Taungnyunt Township.
The reality is accepted. Now Myanmar filmmakers have come up with a creative bypass. The social media campaign #RatingSystemNow is a plea to the Ministry of Information to exercise its authority by putting film censorship to rest, and test run the rating system until the film law bill is passed. The ministry has now asked the campaign leaders to submit a petition signed by other members of the film industry and the public. Given the socio-political and cultural background of the country, plus the pro-censorship articles on state-owned newspapers in response to the campaign, the magnitude of the reactionary force that Myanmar filmmakers have to break through is enormous.
“Just dethroning film censorship, and putting a rating system in its place is not enough,” Daw Phyu Phyu Thin says. “Enforcing the film industry to be transparent in box office revenue – which is a very secretive and murky business until now – and endowing certain percent of film tax to funding for the country’s talented filmmakers would be the best way to steer Myanmar’s film industry toward a hopeful future.”
Self-funding Money Has Four Legs almost emptied Maung Sun’s bank account of money which he had saved from close to a decade of directing TV commercials. “They are just fulfilling the request of others. And for what I really want to do, the more I run after money, the further I was pulled away from it,” he said. A proper film-funding can smoothen, to some extent, the ragged path that promising Myanmar filmmakers like Maung Sun have to embark on. However, there is still one thing sorely needed in Myanmar’s film industry – the resources to hire a qualified foreign crew, given the lack of professionalism locally – an issue that often pushed Maung Sun to an emotional breaking point and almost led him to jettison the project altogether.
“As with everything, two kinds of developments are needed in Myanmar’s film industry: material and intellectual. Money can be the quickest way to achieve the first one. But what is difficult is improving one’s attitude. So, it all comes down to every individual’s mindset in the end,” said the lawyer U Than Maung.
The residue of a hundred-year period might constitute more of the maladies than success stories in Myanmar’s film industry. But Maung Sun has proved with Money Has Four Legs that it is way better to creatively turn these shortcomings into a satire rather than succumb to despair and inaction, for the future of Myanmar’s film industry is as much an individual matter as it is the collective affair, after all.
1. Myint Myat Thu, In search of a few good screenwriters. (The Myanmar Times, Dec 13, 2018)
2. Myint Myat Thu, Secrecy, backlogs and a pandemic: Myanmar’s film industry flounders (Frontier Myanmar, July
About the Author
Myint Myat Thu is a freelance cultural journalist from Myanmar. With great faith in creative approaches to exploring the socio-politics of her country, she writes in-depth analysis and commentary on Myanmar’s art scene and film industry. Her works have appeared in the leading presses and media in English, such as Frontier Myanmar, The Myanmar Times, and The Irrawaddy. Always a labour of love, she tries to make certain that culture is given an important place whenever there are social, political and economic conversations about Myanmar.