The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.
The virtue of writer-director Maung Sun’s debut feature Money Has Four Legs (besides its excellent title) is the street level perspective it offers on Myanmar culture; there’s a very lived in feel to the world we see here, and that level of verisimilitude winds up being the strongest part of a movie that, for all its charms, never quite takes off the way you might want it to.
The movie seems all set to be an industry satire, as it focuses on the misadventures of Wai Bhone, a struggling filmmaker finally given his big break; after years churning out low budget direct to video flicks to little fanfare and even less profit, producer Tin Htut (Phay Fadi) agrees to put him at the helm of an actual theatrical release, a remake of the gangster classic Bo Aung Din.
The opening scene is a brief snippet of Bhone at the censors office, doing his best to maintain a level head as the censor systematically dismisses his vision, advising him to turn his epic, gritty gangster saga into a moralistic, pro-police tract where everybody is polite, no one smokes, and the sex is represented by visual metaphors.
But despite the trappings of satire, at hear it is very much a movie about money… who has it, who doesn’t, and the impossibility of life without it.
From the jump, Bhone is beset by all the problems you’d expect from an industry satire; the talentless lead actress foisted upon him by the producer, the lead actor who makes his own schedule; the nickel and dining of the budget, trouble with location filming…. all the classics. From the evidence on display it’s hard to tell how talented Bhone is as a director, but it’s safe to say that he doesn’t exactly thrive under pressure.
But all that quickly fades into the background, as we spend most of our time off the set, with Bhone’s family: bank teller wife Seazir; adorable daughter Meemi; and brother-in-law Zaw Myint.
Myint, an ex-con who drinks just a little too much for anyone’s good, convinces pushover Bhone to give him a small role in the film, the first of at least two terrible decisions that puts him even further behind the economic eightball than he already is and puts his big break in question.
At which point Zaw Myint suggests they rob Seazir’s bank, which has declared bankruptcy to get out of its own financial troubles. Despite it being incredibly obvious that he shouldn’t trust n none-too-bright, impulsive ex-con like Myint to order takeout, let alone commit a felony, a desperate Bhone reluctantly agrees.
And it goes both better and much, much worse than you’d expect.
What works best about Money Has Four Legs is the absolute sense of place; the little neighborhood (billed by Bhone’s landlord as the center of local filmmaking) feels extremely lived in, from the video store that only rents lower quality dupes of their films to the utterly low-rent nature of the bank itself, the film excels at giving the audience a street level view of life in Myanmar, an act which is rewarding in and of itself.
As I’m unfamiliar with Bo Aung Din, it would be difficult to say how much that specific choice resonates thematically with the rest of the film. But it’s easy to imagine a contrast between the high stakes crime saga that Bhone seems to be aiming for and the utterly ramshackle crime he gets himself involved in (Oceans Eleven it ain’t). The heist itself, the seemingly inevitable aftermath (which might not be what it seems), and the ultimate resolution lack even a hint of grandeur or cool; in its own way, it does a far better job of portraying the whole “crime doesn’t pay” thing than any censor could hope for.
Except… it kind of does. In an ending that skirts the line between cruelly funny and sweet, justice of a type gets served, in its own way, and Bhone winds up a winner and a loser at the same time. Which is just the way it goes in Myanmar, apparently.