Director: Kyi Soe Tun
Year: 1997
Country: Burma

With an unfortunate recent history of political instability, civil war, military rule, and government censorship, Burma (also known as Myanmar) has never really had a chance to develop a booming film industry. There are very few cinemas in Burma, especially outside of the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay, and many of them are falling into disrepair. But a lack of resources doesn’t mean there’s a lack of enthusiasm or talent, and indeed locally produced features have been released with remarkable frequency for decades. Most of them are direct-to-disc releases, or else aired on Burmese television.

The film I’ve chosen for Burma’s entry is titled Thu Chun Ma Kan Bi, or “Never Shall We Be Enslaved”. A historical epic, it takes place in 1885 during the invasion of Burma by European colonialists. The plot is a complicated one full of political machinations and shifting alliances, as different ethnic groups within Burma struggle to maintain their independence, while attempting to play the British and French forces against each other.

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A secret meeting between a Burmese monarch and a French ambassador.

The production design is a triumph – with richly detailed costumes and sets, painstakingly choreographed battle scenes, and a vastness of scale and scope that could rival any Hollywood epic. The fight scenes are filled with somersaults, dramatic zooms, and corny sound effects – reminiscent of an ’80s Hong Kong martial arts flick. Other moments were reminiscent of Bollywood melodramas, or Kurosawa samurai epics. It’s a hybrid of international styles and forms, which surprisingly cohere into a grand historical drama of immense spectacle.

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The film’s strengths lie in its elaborate costumes and set design.

Never Shall We Be Enslaved triumphs during its extravagant battle scenes, which fill the frame with hundreds upon hundreds of costumed soldiers, horses, and even mounted elephants. Slightly less effective are the scenes of palace intrigue and political scheming, which are sometimes overlong and difficult to follow. Ultimately, length is the biggest problem with Never Shall We Be Enslaved. At close to three hours, every scene feels longer than it needs to be, and the pacing suffers accordingly throughout. As someone with only the barest knowledge of Burmese history, it was already difficult to get invested in the struggles of the heroes, and I confess that I began to lose interest towards the film’s end. I admire the film for its technical achievements, but can only recommend it as a piece of storytelling to those with an interest in Burmese culture or history.

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The film’s emotional moments are corny and heavy-handed.

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