For Christina Kyi, born in Myanmar and moving to the USA in her teenage years, her return to the land of her birth in 2009 mirrors the return of her script’s hero, Jaden. The film is a chance to expand her developing career as a director, doing things differently than the vast majority of films made in this South East Asian nation best known for the political struggles of its famous heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Intensive months spent rewriting the script for “Mudras Calling,” her first narrative feature for the international market, were followed by two months of pre-production before the shoot in Bagan, Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Taunggyi. Power often goes out in Yangon and directors like Christina Kyi learn to be tough improvisers who roll with the punches.
“We really wanted to raise the standard of films in Myanmar,” says producer Mona Strassburger. That meant doing things differently than the standard Myanmar film, such as holding auditions, preparing wardrobe for the actors, using ADR and spending time for pre-production. The schedule was long at 30 shooting days, “but it was worth it to make sure we got things right,” emphasizes Strassburger.
The story follows Jaden, a Burmese-American writing his Master’s Thesis in music, who travels to his birthplace – Myanmar to research traditional music. In the culturally rich ancient country, he finds himself pulled into a journey of faith and discovery which will change him utterly.
Unusually for Myanmar 80% of the dialogue is in English, with some Burmese for both the local and international market. This was a challenge for the actors and Strassburger and Kyi decided to bring in an international acting coach, Thierry Bleu, to work with them.
Starting early in the day Bleu did a Method technique training with the 3 main actors adding 5 others who were not cast in the film to enlarge the possibility of different experiences – classical Method acting, exercises, sense memories and improvisations. In the second part of the day he worked only with the main actors exploring the characters and relationships in the story. He then broke down the script to make sure they were understanding the story step by step.
The film was shot exclusively using Blackmagic’s Cinema Cameras and Pocket Cinema Camera. Maung Maung Tha Myint, the DP (Director of Photography) on “Mudras Calling,” had used the Blackmagic Cinema Camera before but “Mudras Calling” was the first feature film that he shot entirely on Blackmagic Cameras. “The flexibility and portability of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is why I decided to shoot with it in the first place,” said Myint. “I can just strip the camera down to just the body and lens to shoot in tight spaces. For this film, the Blackmagic was the A Cam.”
“We also used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera mounted on our self-assembled 3 axis stabilizer and a Hexacopter as a B Cam. Because our budget was very tight, we had to cut the film guerrilla style in some places to avoid paying expensive filming permits. Also we couldn’t afford a closed set on some locations, where our filming often attracted unwanted audiences. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera’s small size and light weight was perfect for our guerrilla-style filmmaking and gimbal stabilizers.”
Recorded to 2.5kRAW on the Blackmagic Cinema Cameras and 1080p RAW on the Pocket Cinema Camera, the footage was graded in DaVinci Resolve Studio. “The flexibility of the RAW from Blackmagic cameras is just simply amazing,” said Myint.
Director Christina Kyi assimilated into American culture after going to film school in New York City but she was always in touch with traditional Burmese dance. She danced at community shows and one day had the idea of bridging the two cultures by creating two characters with different cultural backgrounds and having them meet and find out about each other. For her, dance was always a central part of the film.
The story of a young man in search of his roots who discovers more than he expects upon his return to his birthplace, was the emotional journey of the lead character Jaden. He always wanted to know where he’s from, what kind of people raised him and most importantly was he loved?
Working with lead actor Zenn Kyi was especially unique for director Christina Kyi. He is not only the lead actor in “Mudras Calling” but also her husband and father of her young son. Says Christina Kyi, “Working with him is a blessing. I feel lucky because I see how he is so serious about what he does. He is totally committed to his art and craft.”
Noted Christina Kyi, “on the set everyone is the same. Most people who came to work on the set for a short time and didn’t know us, didn’t even realize we knew each other. We both understand professionalism and take our jobs seriously. When he shows up on set, he looks like someone else, the character of Jaden, and that’s how I interact with him.”
The casting was an open call announced through newspapers, journals, acting schools and social media. After 3 days of auditions it was clear to all they had found their leading man and woman – Zenn Kyi and Hla Yin Kyae. Bleu worked with all the actors and intensively with the two leads and supporting actress.
Director Christina Kyi discussed the script with acting coach Thierry Bleu and then broke down the script according to her interpretation of the story. Her favorite scene is when Jaden says goodbye to his father at the docks. The challenge of working with non-professional actors as well as those who had some experience, was a challenge but since Kyi is committed to raising the level of movie making in Myanmar, she was happy everyone was learning and would bring this to other work after “Mudras Calling.”
Christina Kyi still has the supple stance of a natural dancer. She has learned to bend like a reed in the often challenging environment of the still burgeoning film scene in Myanmar. Her advice to a first time director is “don’t give up – ever” and she embodies that philosophy in her journey to get this film made.