Canadian flautists have a penchant for playing outside the box: Robert Aitken, not content with the role of principal flute in major orchestras, turned his considerable talent to contemporary works and became the founding artistic director of New Music Concerts Ensemble; Douglas Miller plies his craft on the road with touring Broadway shows or in his own backyard with the Gallery Players of Niagara, yet, hemmed in by the standard repertoire, takes the music of Beethoven and Schubert and transcribes it for his magical silver tube; in Mystic Ball, Greg Hamilton takes his love of art many steps further, eschewing his instrumental work for the beauty, grace and vision required to engage in the no-winner game of chinlone. (cross-references below)
Chinlone, the traditional sport of Myanmar (formerly Burma), celebrated annually during Buddhist festivals, sees a team of six—confined to the area of a pre-defined circle—attempt to keep the rattan-woven, hollow ball off the ground for as long as possible. Soloists move to the centre and remain “on stage” as long as their ingenuity and athleticism keep the sphere in unsoiled motion. Like any noble endeavour, it’s not as easy as it seems when watching the pros such as the Golden Princess, Su Su Hlaing (earning cash and respect at fairs and family events) and the Dream Lovers (a state-of-the-art team whose members work their trades by day then kick their way to glory and adulation in front of monks, and the local denim-less population after the closing bell). Curiously, in a country “ruled” by a military junta, the absence of a frame of soldiers gives the film more an air of tourist bait than dig-down documentary.
As Hamilton’s infatuation with chinlone morphs from the physical to spiritual, his obsession knows no bounds, drawing him to Thailand to buy balls, then to Burma to practise and learn. Central to this odyssey are his mixed-race heritage and foster home upbringing: he must travel half-a-world away to find acceptance, love and companionship.
The film’s finest moments come from bodies in motion. Whether playing in a back alley with only a few passersby watching the fun or under the big tent and on Burmese propaganda television (Hamilton is touted as the first foreigner ever to play at a professional level), the ebb and flow of finely tuned bodies engaging in over 200 moves from the “repertoire,” all aided and abetted by equally varied and colourful music, the look and feel is a heady mixture of first-rate ballet and Cirque de Chinlone. The co-ed team of kids delight and the reflective silhouette of indeterminate bodies writhing in the sunset will linger in memory for years.
Still, Hamilton’s quest can’t rise above the back-story and techniques. His annual pilgrimage borders on tiresome, succumbing to the inherent trap of lack of disinterest when the director is also the star. Fantasizing this tale through the eyes, ears and feet of his mentor Ko Maung Maung, the imagination is flooded with an exceptionally compelling look into a game that, when in its zone, dissolves hostility and creates an environment of peace. JWR