We’re in the heart of the Myanmar countryside. Sweeping green hills and rice paddies and, far off in the distance, a temple.
A narrow dirt highway cuts through the landscape. A couple of young kids are playing on the side of the road when they hear a faraway sound of rumble. Like the sound of jet planes approaching. They look up in the sky but there’s nothing there. The rumbling sound gets louder and louder and then it’s like the road itself is starting to vibrate. The kids look scared and move further to the edge, to the safety of a nearby rice paddy. The approaching sounds seem to be coming from over a small hill, beyond the horizon. The road. And then, suddenly, a wave of bikers, young men and women riding Harleys, roar over the hill and down the road. In a formation of two abreast, wearing Levi’s, bandanas and dark glasses, their long hair waving in the wind, the bikers are a large gang and they stretch back for what seems like hundreds of metres as they ride past the kids. Who have never seen anything like it.
Riding towards Yangon.
Biker groups are designed to instil fear; that’s how they extort money from various people, which we will see shortly but this is Myanmar and the leader of this gang, as are all of them, is a Buddhist. As they turn a corner in the road, still in the countryside, they see, up ahead, a farmer shepherding his flock of cows across the road, from one paddock to another on the other side. The leader of the gang, who calls himself Dante, puts up his arm, indicating that they halt and wait. Which they do, the old shepherd smiling and waving at them for their patience.
This is the only moment of kindness we will see in him.
Kyi is in his mid-twenties and works as a mechanic in an Auto Shop with his older brother, Sanda. This is in the western district, quite some distance away from the centre. In and around the area known as Hlaing Tharyar. This is where they grew up.
Together they own the shop; it was left to them by their father who died some years ago. Kyi has a strong sense of obligation in working for his brother. He doesn’t really like the job nor does he like his brother’s circle of friends. They are gang members and Sanda has been mixed up in petty crime all his life. Kyi fears he will be increasingly dragged into this world. He hates the gang life and all it stands for.
What he wants to be is a singer. And he’s good. Ever since he was young he practised hip hop and rap and he is learning to teach himself how to play the guitar. Sanda actively discourages all of this in his younger brother, constantly ridiculing him. Sanda also actively discourages Kyi from spending any time with the girl across the street as well.
Thiri Aung is about Kyi’s age and, like him, wants to be a singer. She works in her mum’s restaurant and they can look out from where they work, as the traffic rumbles past the busy road and see one another. Dreaming that one day they will find their dreams.
They are in love. Have been a little while. Both his brother and her mum are antagonistic to them being together. Sanda, because she is an influence on him which he doesn’t like and her mum, because she thinks both brothers are bad types of people. Despite that Kyi and Thiri Aung often sneak away at night and go into Central Yangon, to a park which is a pulsing center for live music and here, on stage, perform to the crowds, hoping that one day they might actually have a career. This park has like a stand-up mike stage where anyone can perform. Kyi and Thiri Aung are big favourites with the teenage crowds who love their hip hop and rap.
After a performance that wows the crowd Kyi and Thiri Aung discover that a big-time Korean music promoter has heard of the Myanmar hip hop scene and is coming to town to do a live concert feed across Asia. This is their chance to be discovered!
However all this is about to change as Dante and his gang ride into town.
After a notorious violent incident in downtown Yangon in 2001, when a biker gang called The Scorpions, created some havoc in the streets, the government banned motor-bikes. But the further one gets away from the centre, into the outskirts, like Hlaing Tharyar, the ban is relaxed. In any event Dante and his gang don’t care for laws. They haven’t arrived in Yangon to obey street lights.
Dante and Sanda are old friends. Sanda is part-time with the gang. Not any more, says Dante because the gang is relocating to this western part of Yangon. They’ve just suffered a violent clash with another biker gang up north, on the border with Thailand and have decided to move down here, buy some weapons and gather their strength before they go back and wipe out the rival gang. Suddenly, and much to Kyi’s horror, the gang has made the Auto Shop their new headquarters. And now the pressure is really on little brother Kyi to join his brother and also wear the colours of the gang.