Update: re-recording classic soundtracks of the Burmese screen has been temporarily put on ice due to the political instability of the region. It is, however, critical to recognize that the practice of live dubbing is a rare and rapidly fading performance art that needs to be documented for future generations, film scholars, and cinephiles worldwide.
25 Feb. 2021
Restoration as performance: the work of post-production
Restoration is a “history of the changes that have taken place with the object in the course of time” (Ricci 438), a kind of an ethnographic record inscribed upon an object that communicates the history of its material and social transformations. Traditional approaches to film analysis, such as “the cautious, semiotic labor of explaining just how a film makes meaning” (Enticknap 6) do not usually take into account how the material artefact and the use of technology contribute to that meaning. But for archival scholars and preservationists, it is the very work of restoration and reconstruction that produces the value of what films will mean to the public, and this work is not finished until the artefact has succeeded in reaching the public.
Getting it right with the public can be a touchy affair, frequently wroth fraught with ethical issues, what copyright law refers to “moral rights” (authorial intent), and the opposition between artistic prestige and commercial success that fields of restricted cultural production tend to invite. The challenge becomes one of presenting the archival copy as a new original (rather than an atemporal reproduction, existing for no one in particular) in ways that are relevant and sensitive to present socio-cultural contexts. Implicit in this endeavor is that preservation no longer only implies the repair and stabilization of the physical artefact, but becomes a set of strategies for the preservation of cultural memory.
Thus, the idea of Restoration as performance can be considered just as seriously as any traditional notion of restoration. A most extreme case presents itself when the preservation of cultural memory cannot be supported by a physical artefact. How does one, for instance, talk of preserving a film history when no physical copies survive? Davy Chou’s documentary Golden Slumbers and Paul Grant’s book “Lilas: An Illustrated History of the Golden Ages of Cebuano Cinema” both attempt to fill this gap. Chou approaches the subject as an ethnographer, and relies on the memories of surviving film professionals, actors, and fans to reconstruct a time and a cultural practice that had been almost entirely destroyed by the tyrannical regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Grant’s method also involves interviews, as well as a substantial volume of paratexts, to chart the history of the overlooked efforts of the Cebuano linguistic majority to establish a national film practice within particularly unfavorable political and economic conditions in the Philippines.
Archival restoration endeavors can also take the form of post-production work, such as the 2011 EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ experimental hand-colored restoration of Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mécanique (1924), or James Katz and Robert Harris’ excellent stereo remix and new foley track for Vertigo in time for Universal’s limited 70mm re-release of the film in 1996. Another approach was proposed in 2016 at the Asian Film Archive’s event “State of Motion,” which drew attention to filming locations throughout Singapore that, disconnected from their immediate narratives, were re-presented as sites and receptacles of real and lived history via a series of installations and a walking tour. While not directly related to preservation this event was very successful in reigniting interest in Singapore film history. In 2015, Usmar Ismail’s hugely popular musical comedy Tiga Dara (Three Maidens, Indonesia, 1957) was restored at L’immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna and digitally remastered by Alex Sihar in Indonesia. The restored version opened on Indonesian screens in August 2016, along with a new soundtrack featuring covers of the original songs by contemporary artists.
Each of these examples is an attempt at preservation, not of so much of the material record but of other, more abstract features, such as creative techniques and cultural memory. Such projects inevitably generate conversations about what is proper and improper in an archival context, but the controversies that they provoke also offer a new way of looking at history and help keep the archive alive.
The initial version of this project began in association with Memory! Film Festival and the Memory! Cinema Foundation as a proposal to re-record the soundtrack of Tin Maung’s 1934 classic Mya Ga Naing. It has changed since then to focus more exclusively on the practice of live dubbing and musical performances. Below is a description of the film that inspired the proposal.
In 1934, when Mya Ga Naing was made, film production had almost completely transitioned to sound throughout the industrialized countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Burma, meanwhile, had developed its own tradition of live accompaniment and dubbing of films in the style of traditional theatre. The 1930s were tumultuous years, as the country sought to free itself from British rule, and films that emphasized a national, independent character were an important part of that struggle. Initially, Mya Ga Naing was silent with Burmese intertitles and live accompaniment. Shortly after WWII, when Burma became the independent state Myanmar, director Maung Tin Maung revisited the film and added music in 1954 and then dialogue in 1970. Today large portions of the audio on the surviving elements has been compromised due to time and handling damage, and provides a poor impression of what the film may have sounded like to audiences.
As part of the restoration effort, this project proposes to re-record the audio as an additional soundtrack to accompany the re-reslease/reissue of this Myanmar classic. The tradition of live musical accompaniment and voice dubbing was popular in Burma until well into the 1940s, and a number of the original performers are still around today. Thus, the re-recording of the Mya Ga Naing soundtrack will be an instance of restoration as performance, aiming to preserve techniques of production and artistic sensibilities that are, like celluloid film itself, disappearing. To this end, the project will also include a “making of” documentary that will highlight Myanmar’s unique tradition of live film sound and dialogue.
Mya Ga Naing (detail)
Cast: Daw Myint Myint, U Chit Shwe, U Ba Saw Gyi
Cinematography: U Myat Kyaw, U Ba Thaung
Production: A1 Film Company
Language: Silent with Burmese intertitles, music added in 1954 and dialogue in 1970
Duration: 97 min
Color: Black and White
Deep in the jungle, where tigers, snakes and elephants are at home, U Pho Thwa, owner of a sawmill, lives in idyllic tranquility with his delightful granddaughter Myint Myint. Out riding one day, Myint Myint is thrown from her horse into the river and saved from drowning by Chit Shwe, a handsome youth from Rangoon. Alas, the young couple must part all too soon, as Chit Shwe is bound back to the city to try and save his father from his cheating stepmother and from squandering the family’s fortune. Chit Shwe needs money, and decides to pretend to be a wanted criminal so that he may turn himself in for the reward. The police however give zealous chase, and Chit Shwe has to escape merely to stay alive, which he does using every available mode of transportation including hot air balloon. The winds of fate blow him in the direction of the sawmill. Happily reunited, Myint Myint and Chit Shwe fight off an attack from a group of thieves during which grandfather loses his life, but Chit Shwe receives the welcome news that his stepmother has finally eloped with her lover, father has regained his poise, and the young couple are anxiously awaited for tea and marriage blessings in Rangoon.
Maung Tin Maung was born in 1908 in Pyay, a small town in Lower Burma. He came from a well-known film family, his brother Nyi Pu (1900-1996) being among the first Burmese film actors. Tin Maung began his film career humbly, appearing in the 1923 film Taw Myaing Zon Ga Lwan Aung Phan. In 1934, while enrolled at Rangoon University, Tin Maung began working at A1-Film, the largest film studio in Burma at the time, where he was known as ‘A1 Tin Maung’ (as was the custom for stars and technicians who worked there, in show of pride). That very same year he directed his first film, Mya Ga Naing (The Emerald Jungle) and in 1937, Aung Thabyay (The Triumph of Thapyay), a historical drama about the final days of King Thibaw, Burma’s last monarch, who died an embittered man in exile in India. It was shown only to a small Burmese audience, as the colonial government did not allow the movie to play in theaters nation-wide.
In 1942, during World War II, Maung Tin Maung enlisted in the Burma Independence Army to fight against the British. After the war he returned to A1, increasingly focused on directing. In the following years he visited several Asian countries (Indonesia in 1950, India in 1954 and Japan in 1955) to learn more about directing and film production techniques. He won the Burmese Academy Award for best actor with the 1953 film Yatanabon (Treasure Trove), and another one for best director with Ko Ye, Toe Ye, Soe Soe Ye in 1967. Tin Maung was also chairman of the Film Council (known today as the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization, MMPO) from 1964 to 1966. Maung Tin Maung died in Yangon on 4 October 2000, having appeared in a number of films as singer and actor, and having directed more than forty titles over the course of his career.
Enticknap, Leo. 2013. Film Restoration: The Technology and Culture of Audiovisual Heritage. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gracy, Karen F. 2007. Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use, and Practice. Chicago, IL: The Society of American Archivists.
Lameris, Bregt, Rossella Catanese, and Guy Edmonds. 2015. “Hand-Painted Abstractions.” Moving Image (15323978) 15 (1): 92–98.
Paci, Viva. 2015. “The Remix Age.” Moving Image (15323978) 15 (2): 72–82.
Ricci, Steven. 2008. “Saving, Rebuilding, or Making: Archival (Re) Constructions in Moving Image Archives.” The American Archivist 71 (2): 433–55.