Documenting the passed | ‘Cane ball’ trapped on celluloid

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Burmese lads play chinlone sometime in the 1890s. Photo 430/15(63), Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library. Photographer: Watts and Skeen.

Mandalay, Burma | Dry dispatches announcing chinlone tournaments appear occasionally in the New Light of Myanmar, the mouthpiece of Burma’s military regime. The terse pronouncements show that despite the political and economic torpor and the governing junta’s Orwellian logic—the capital recently was relocated from Rangoon based partly on the forecasts of astrologers—a taste for the beauties of “cane ball” remains.

The New Light of Myanmar, affectionately known as NLOM, of 2 Oct 2004 reports on the previous day’s coordinating meeting for the Prime Minister’s Cup:

The minister made an opening speech. Afterwards, the president of Myanmar Chinlone Federation reported on holding of the competition. This was followed by a general round of discussions.

It makes you glad that you did not have to be there. By far a better option for appreciating the native forerunner of football, and a stylistic relative of the Chinese tsu-chu or the Japanese sport of kemari, would be to attend the world premiere of Mystic Ball. The chinlone documentary screens on 1 May as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.


The film, according to the media release, tracks Canadian Greg Hamilton‘s romancing of the sport from beginner to a player capable of joining the mystical circle of six. Along the way, Hamilton, the film’s director, metaphorically ”juggles feelings of bliss and self-discovery with occasional bouts of self-doubt and inadequacy.” He nevertheless plays in this brutally repressed society during a televised chinlone event at a major Buddhist festival.

In the excerpts available on the movie’s website, we see the ritualistic game in full flower. Teams of women, men and children whisk the ball in a moving circle, centered in a small arena full of transfixed faces, many of them monks. The game provides for a “soloist” in the middle of the circle, while teammates keep the ball aloft with quick flicks and leg thrusts.

The ball is woven from rattan. It makes a distinctive clicking sound when kicked that is part of the aesthetic of the game. Players use six points of contact with the ball: the top of the toes, the inner and outer sides of the foot, the sole, the heel, and the knee.

… Over the centuries, players have developed more than 200 different ways of kicking the ball. Many of the moves are similar to those of Myanmar dance and martial art. Some of the most difficult strokes are done behind the back without seeing the ball as it is kicked.

Hamilton meets the “Golden Princess” Su Su Hlaing, a chinlone solo artist. The solo performances, including juggling while balancing on a tightrope and while navigating jump ropes, which also happen to be on fire, are the province of women. One sees why Hamilton says that the game, judged on style rather than victory or loss, helps create an “intensely focused state of mind, similar to that achieved in Zen meditation.”

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