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Bad guy blues: Myanmar villains struggle to get by

Thursday - 10/24/2013, 3:02pm  ET

TED ANTHONY
Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- In a dimly lit alley on a cramped side street of a teeming Southeast Asian city, the bad guys cluster together, plotting their next move.

There is A Yaing Min, the "King of Cruelty," who twirls his mustache as he talks and cultivates a pointy beard with a pointed message: Mess with me, and I will end you. There is Myint Kyi, who has been dispatching enemies -- typically with spears -- since 1958. There is Phone Naing, muscular and sinewy in tight military pants, who talks only in a low snarl.

Granted, these are not actual evildoers. They are longtime cinematic villains who gather each morning in a tightly packed enclave of video production houses, movie-poster studios and worse-for-wear apartment buildings that serves as the tattered ground zero of the Burmese movie industry. In the heart of Yangon's Little Hollywood, they sit on tiny plastic chairs, glowering, spitting carmine betel-nut saliva onto the ground. They wait, and wait, and wait some more, stalking a quarry that is becoming ever more elusive: a day's work.

For decades, as Myanmar endured dictatorship and international isolation, these actors were the twisted faces of wrongdoing that the country's struggling film industry showed the Burmese people in movies that rarely made it out of the country -- and even more rarely dealt with anything that really mattered. Now this nation is opening to a wider world brimming with pop-culture choices, big-budget special effects and international bad guys who jet from Stockholm to Shanghai to wreak destruction on shiny, globalized levels.

The struggle is a microcosm of change in the country once known as Burma, whose military dictatorship handed power to a civilian government in 2011 after elections the previous year. What happens when the world opens up to you? For Myanmar's movie industry, one of the answers was this: It got harder to earn a living being evil.

"The market is in trouble," says A Yaing Min, a former boxer who turned to on-screen villainy in the early 1980s and became a fixture in such Burmese staples as "The Bad Guy with a Pure Heart."

"In other countries," he says, "villains don't have to walk the streets to get their jobs."

Each morning, the bad guys of Yangon and their brethren -- all members of Ko Lu Chaw, or "Handsome Guy Group," effectively a trade union for cinematic villains -- arrive at dawn. They take up position at outdoor breakfast stalls along 35th and 36th streets, order coffee or tea, and hope for work.

It comes more rarely every day. When it does, it is hardly lucrative -- a day or two on bottom-budget videos, a few dollars here and there, perhaps not even practicing the villainy that has been their bread and butter for so long.

Several things made this happen. The government privatized the state-controlled film industry in 2010. Decaying theaters, unable to afford new digital systems to project DVDs, began to close; today, many sit crumbling on street corners. Films were supplanted by a sausage-grinder glut of cheap home videos made in mere days, even hours.

The masses began turning away from overwrought Burmese action movies, electing -- in, finally, times of tentative hope -- to favor romance, comedy and supernatural horror. And, of course, the arrival of movies from India, South Korea and Thailand, plus visually arresting Hollywood epics like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Wolverine," pointed up the lack of production values in the homegrown, B-movie culture.

"I worry very much these days. I used to work nonstop. But I haven't had regular work in six months," says Phone Naing, 45, a movie villain for the last quarter century. His compatriots nodded vigorously. Things have gotten so bad, he complained, that directors will press their film technicians into service to play bad guys.

"They'll be working on a set and someone will say, 'Hey, can you be a villain?'" Phone Naing says. "You use cheap villains, you get what you pay for."

Membership in the villains' union helps, a bit. Some of the group's 100 members contribute money to support others. And this year, a coalition of stars got together to donate 100 bags of rice each month to the society. A Yaing Min points proudly to a recent newspaper tabloid that shows him receiving rice from actress Wut Hmone Shwe Yi, Myanmar's latest It girl.

Myanmar's film industry is organized in a unique way. Actors and actresses congregate -- form unions, develop health-care plans, lobby for benefits -- based on the roles they play on screen. There is an aging mothers' guild, a spinsters' guild, a comedians' guild. It is typecasting, pulled into the real world.

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