Mystic Ball – the movie

by Bernie DeKoven on February 26, 2008

When I first wrote about the Myanmar game of Chinlone, I really only had minor intimations of how important that game was to become to me. It wasn’t until I watched Greg Hamilton’s movie, Mystic Ball, that I understood not only his profound passion for Chinlone, but my passion for The Well-Played Game.

When I wrote The Well-Played Game, I described a pivotal experience I had, during a game of Ping Pong. Later, I found a wonderful story by Bill Russell, in which he describes an experience of genuine transcendence, similar to mine, but in the highly competitive game of professional basketball. But in all these years of teaching, Mystic Ball, the movie, was the first time I’ve found the Well-Played game expressed so purely, understood so deeply, documented so thoroughly – in a game totally devoted to sharing that particular experience.

The film opens with the following Myanmar proverb: “The spirit of give and take that breeds happiness is the foundation on which the game of Chinlone rests.” We are then transported into an astonishingly ornate building, festooned with bare electric bulbs and intricate carvings covered in gold paint. On the inside, we see a kind of theater-in-the-round. On stage, 6 people playing with a rattan ball. Hamilton comments: “Getting to play with this team that I just played with is like playing with Michael Jordan and Baryshnikov and Fred Astaire and Bruce Lee and Muhammed Ali and all the most beautiful movement people and sports people I could ever imagine…It’s surely the most fun, beautiful, mystical feeling…This is like my religion and my love and my heart. Chinlone is just all about love and happiness.”

The film progresses from scene to scene of beauty, passion, grace and skill. We observe the art of making a Chinlone ball. We see the game played everywhere throughout Myanmar, by men and women, children and elders, on the street, in practice courts, in dedicated arenas. We follow the highest practitioners of the art. Director and author Greg Hamilton explains what he has discovered in the game of Chinlone with a clarity and intensity that characterizes every scene of this remarkable film.

“The most amazing thing about Chinlone, Hamilton comments, “is that it’s not competitive. There’s no opposing team, no scoring, and no winners or losers. The team tries to keep the ball up as long as possible. But that’s not enough. The real goal is to do the most difficult and beautiful moves they can.”

“Watching them play was a revelation. What really stuck out was just how playful they were. They weren’t arguing or fighting, like always happens in competitive sports. These guys were just having…a good time. It really made me think about how most sports are not playful.”

His background is in martial arts. He says: “I used to think of myself as a warrior. But deep down, I never really liked hurting people.” In Chinlone, however, he discovered that he could “do something as if my life depended on it, but without having to defeat anyone.”

Near the end of the film, he takes us to his favorite Chinlone practice court. He comments: “There’s so much beauty inside this circle – the flow of the ball between us, and the ‘tic toc’ sound the ball makes as we support each other.”

I was fortunate enough to get to talk to Greg about this beautiful film, and to get a personal experience of his deep passion for the game. Basically, I just wanted to convey my excitement and gratitude for what he has brought to us – and to me, especially, in his being able to capture and convey what I have devoted my life to teaching. Greg commented: “I didn’t really want to be in the film in the first place.” He just wanted to show us the game itself. But he was as much a part of the story as the game was, and he couldn’t avoid it. What he wanted most to share with us was that: “Something as serious as Chinlone could be so playful.” What he most wanted us to perceive was that “above all, Chinlone is a way of loving.”

Later, I sent Greg a draft of this post, asking for further comment. Here’s part of his reply:

The interaction between the ball and the players and the players with each other is sensuous, I can’t think of a better way to put it. In my opinion, and I’ve asked some of men players about this and they agree – Chinlone it is strangely similar to making love. Because of a certain modesty with the the women in Myanmar, I’ve not been able to ask women players some of these kind of questions. It’s like the essence of what making love is – not the rubbing together of body parts, but the intense, immediate connection and playing together of spirits. It really is play isn’t it? This is one of the unique and breathtaking things I’ve found in Chinlone. And you can do it for hours at time with 1,2,3,4,5, or even more other people! When I see dogs playing and frolicking together – it’s making love through play, and that is the feeling I’ve always wanted my life to be full of. There is always love and the sensual inside real play.

So many things that I didn’t say or bring up in the film, for various reasons. One being that I didn’t want to come across preachy, and of course there is only so much you can fit into 83 minutes. There are lots and lots of other things to share about Chinlone.

I think Chinlone is a feminine sport. One is nurtured and embraced in this game. It’s not about power or dominance. There is a gentleness, an inclusiveness and a loving feeling that is always there – even between the audience and the players. Men and women play together, old folks and young ones play together. At the first Chinlone festival I saw, there was a team that had a 72 year old (in fact it was Wei Za Than, the one with the beautiful wife!) and a 9 year old on the same team – I was blown away!

All of the play in Chinlone is an end in itself. There are no arbitrary rules, just a certain etiquette and a lot of intuition inside the circle. I love that. There is a struggle with gravity, that as skill develops, becomes an elemental dance of pure flow.

So many things that I love about Chinlone – it is so hard that everyone, even the greatest players end up looking foolish fairly often – nothing to do but laugh about it, and 5 or 10 minutes into a game everyone is laughing for sure. You didn’t see a lot of this in the film because I focused on the festival plays and because there is an audience, the players are a little more serious than usual. It’s a very, very funny game.

Here we are on this giant spinning ball – in orbit. I feel a connection between the way Chinlone is played and the orbiting of planets. I’m still working on this one and trying to find clear ways of talking about it.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith


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