Myanmar filmmaker's debut feature explores the exploitation of Kayan women
One of Myanmar’s up-and-coming filmmakers, Aung Ko Latt has long been saddened by the tribulations of the ethnic minority groups in his homeland. When he started planning his first feature film five years ago, Latt instinctively knew his subject was to be found somewhere in the highlands of Shan State, home to a multitude of tribal communities.
The result in “Kayan Beauties”, a film that depicts the commercial exploitation of Shan’s tribal peoples and the scourge of human trafficking that comes with it.
At last month’s Asean International Film Festival and Awards in Malaysia, Latt’s film won the Special Jury Award on the back of two nominations: Best Director of Photography (Aung Ko Latt) and Best Supporting actress (Rose Mary).
His victory looks set to catapult Myanmar cinema to international recognition.
“I am very happy for myself and for all my brothers who worked for this film. I’m happy for the Kayan race. We were able to show what we wanted. I am especially happy for the Myanmar film industry. I expect to see many high quality films that our like ours or even better than ours.
“Everybody who participated in the AIFFA has a good feeling about the movie. That’s why we received the jury award,” Latt says, adding that participants were surprised to see the Myanmar entry in the festival.
“Kayan Beauties”, Myanmar’s first HD film, is a gritty portrayal of the Kayan “long-necked” tribe, often referred to as the Padaung. It centres on the lives of three Kayan women, which become inextricably interwoven on their journey to search for a kidnapped Kayan girl who has fallen victim to cross-border human trafficking in Thailand.
The Kayan, famous for their “giraffe necks” stretched by wearing golden rings, are often seen as victims of exploitation in Thailand’s booming tourist trade. Latt tries to increase public awareness of the issue through his film.
“I want to show to the world that they [the Kayan tribe] are originally from Myanmar, not from any other country,” Latt says, adding “My second purpose is to show that the Myanmar film industry has the capacity to create top-quality movies worthy of screening overseas.”
Myanmar cinema would be more acceptable internationally if there were more quality and greater investment – and no censorship, he notes.
Latt’s first encounter with Kayan culture began in 1981 during several visits to the Shan highlands where the director met members of the tribe and taught them the magic of music.
These highland adventures were followed by a trip to Japan in 1986 to pursue a filmmaking degree. Back in Myanmar nine years later, Latt set up Ko Latt Motion Picture Production, through which he has been producing TV commercials instead of feature films, his true passion.
With the advent of HD technology in the 1990s, Latt honed more technical skills at the New York Film Academy in 1999 and teamed up with his long-time American friend Hector Carosso to conceptualise “Kayan Beauties” in 2006.
The collaboration involved months of researching and interviewing the “long neck” in the Shan hills. But a year later, the draft screenplay remained incomplete and riddled with gaping holes.
Latt plucked four Kayan ladies from the hills and subjected them to rigorous training in acting for eight months.
Overall filming, which lasted about three months in 2008, took the crew to remote yet beautiful locales like Pekon, Monhbye, Panpat, Lawbarkho and Taunggyi in southern Shan and Loikaw in Kayah State.
Though hooked on the Kayan’s striking feminine beauty and unique cultural identity, scriptwriter Carosso needed to play down the Kayan’s visual appearances and highlight the human angle of the story. He made further cuts at the behest of the censorship board.
“If ‘Kayan Beauties’ hadn’t been censored, it’d be a very different movie,” he says.
With five years in the making and post-production in Bangkok, “Kayan Beauties” premiered in Nay Pyi Taw last year. The film hasn’t been screened elsewhere in the country though a showing was organised in Singapore for the Myanmar audience last November.
“Now with ‘Kayan Beauties’ in the Asean Film Festival, we have more opportunities in other festivals,” says Carosso. “We are still hoping for the ‘Kayan Beauties’ to go into the international market,” Latt adds.
Latt and Carosso are currently working on their next film – one they dreamed up 17 years ago. Set in Bagan, “Maung Kyi Lin” is about the competition and friendship between two young boys from America and Myanmar.