Myanmar's first foreign movie screening in decades? Not quite.


YANGON, MYANMAR: A Burmese student walks past a large, hand-painted poster featuring the latest film from America in 2002.


Stephen Shaver

Much has been made of the uber-blockbuster Titanic 3-D's premiere in troubled, impoverished Myanmar.

The L.A. Times calls Titanic 3-D the "first movie released in Myanmar in decades." Time Magazine calls it "the first American studio picture to screen in (Myanmar) in recent history."

But both statements fall somewhere between highly misleading and just plain wrong.

Indeed, Titanic 3-D is the first "licensed" Hollywood film to appear in Myanmar for some time. But even in tightly controlled countries such as Myanmar, Hollywood has always found a way to seep through the cracks.

The only novel aspect of the Titanic 3-D screening is that, through a Fox licensing agreement, it was actually legal.

In Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, major-market Hollywood films have screened without direct licensing from American entertainment firms for decades. When I last visited Yangon in June, "The Avengers" was playing in the city's time-worn cinema row. I suspect Robert Downey Jr. and Paramount Pictures did not receive a cut of those ticket sales.

Some cinemas even advertise with magnificently colorful, hand-painted displays to advertise Hollywood flicks. The photo to the right offers a theater artist's rendering of Gene Hackman in "Behind Enemy Lines."

Here's an attempt at the painting Charlize Theron's character in "Aeon Flux."

And here's a depiction of "Ghost." Patrick Swayze is kissing a Demi Moore that looks mysteriously like Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yes, Myanmar has a well-founded reputation as a land lost in time. Years of Western embargoes and pervasive censorship have limited the nation's exposure to pop culture from abroad. Even citizens lucky enough to have electricity are simply too poor to waste money on luxuries such as CDs or cinema tickets.

Ideally, a still-nascent commerical revolution in Myanmar will create a broader middle class that can afford a night at the movies. Fox is simply joining a slew of other American corporations (General Electric, Coke, etc.) in setting up shop inside Myanmar as Western sanctions fade away. 

The Wall Street Journal, in a much smarter take on Titanic 3-D's official Myanmar debut, reports that 20th Century Fox International's top executives are looking forward to "visiting our newest territory when we travel Asia later this year."

If their itinerary includes a full tour of downtown Yangon, they will find run-down cinema houses screening unlicensed Hollywood flicks and teenage boys hawking pirated movies by the boxful.