Thursday, November 26, 2015

Dust to dust on Thanksgiving

From the city of Philadelphia, USA, on this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks that I had the chance to watch a movie at the Thai Rama Theater in Uthumpon Phisai, Sisaket Province in Thailand's great Northeast. My visit to the theater four years ago was inspirational on a number of levels, but most notably because of the unbridled community spirit with which the theater operated. The ticket price of 20 baht, the lowest in the country at the time, was testament of the owner's devotion to the residents of her native town.

The Thai Rama piqued my affection so much that I pitched an article about it to The Nation which was subsequently published on January 15th, 2012

Sadly, the dismal economics of the business got the better of it. Earlier this year it closed down and was soon after demolished. As of right now there are exactly 4 operating stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand outside of Bangkok.

Images the Thai Rama's condition after the fact were kindly sent by a follower of this blog who resides near the theater.

In life



Nearly identical shots from the Thai Rama's projection room, before and after dismantling

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Siam Theater - Yala, Thailand

Geographically speaking, the Siam Theater feels like the center of Yala. Not just the center of the old commercial section of town - which it is the center of - but the entire province. It's almost as if the old Mandala system of Buddhist monarchical rule, in Yala, fanned outwards from its cosmological core at the Siam Theater. If only in name, that's not such a stretch, as the theater's original moniker was The King's Theater. 

With its terminated vista setting anchoring the middle of old downtown, the Siam is a spectacle even in post-life. One can only image its affect on the town's image when festooned with colorful movie billboards and twinkling lights.  

The Siam Theater at the terminus of a cozy urban vista 

Dating to the early 1960's, the Siam was once the premiere movie theater of Yala. International Style architecture, then the vanguard of modern building design, was deftly employed to help the Siam achieve its top tier status. 

Hand painted signage in Thai and Chinese

Sadly, in conjunction with the usual socio-technological factors that cause stand-alone movie theaters to fail, Yala and the rest of the deep south have had an on-going insurgency to further dampen the movie going spirit. That constant fear of violence has kept locals indoors for all but the most necessary activities. Leisurely pursuits like movie going lost their appeal, leading to theater closure after theater closure. Today, a mall-based Coliseum Cineplex is the only option in Yala for watching a movie on the silver screen.

As for the Siam, for the past 5 years it's been a swiftlet nesting house.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"The Westerner with the Thai Heart: Another breath for the stand-alone movie theater"

Below is the link to an hour long special on stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand. The program aired on the show "LINE Kanok," hosted by Kanok Ratwongsakul on The Nation TV, Sunday, November 1st at 7PM.

Most of the show is dedicated to the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project and its mission of preserving select theaters in the region.

The title of the show translates to "The Westerner with the Thai Heart: Another breath for the stand-alone movie theater."

Please pardon my second rate Thai

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Vanishing Point" marks starting point

If I had to guess which of Bangkok's remaining handful of porn theaters would play host to a proper movie premiere, I wouldn't have guessed the Laem Thong. Not in a million years. Back in 2009, during my lone trip to the Laem Thong, the experience I had there left me with a strong impression, one that ultimately convinced me that I would stop researching porn theaters.

The Laem Thong Theater, not quite a "lighthouse of culture."

It was a crisp December morning. The Laem Thong Theater stood proudly under the warm Bangkok sun; a lighthouse of culture buried deep in the labyrinthine metropolis.

In the theater's open air lobby, regaled in its fading 1970's decor, lounged a half dozen men all radiating destitution. Blood shot, insomniac eyes, shifting suspiciously, or starring blankly into unseen corners of despair betrayed their vice.

So much for the "lighthouse of culture." If this jilted group was any indicator, the Laem Thong Theater was Skid Row's living room. A place where hardcore addiction met abject poverty in the anonymous darkness of a picture hall. The goings on inside, I determined then and there, were best left undiscovered.

The lobby of the Laem Thong in 2009

My inquiries on that bright December morning came to a hard stop at the Laem Thong's front door, with no intentions of ever returning again. Anyway, it seemed all but guaranteed that the Laem Thong, like just about every other forlorn stand-alone theater in Thailand, would have a date with a backhoe in the years to come. Having the necessary documentation under my belt, there seemed little reason to ever visit again.

Blade signage - a rarity among Thai theaters - on the Laem Thong.

Fast forward six years. By some strange twist of fate - be it a slow rise in property value, or an owner who simply refuses to sell - the Laem Thong Theater is still standing. Skid Row's living room, alive and well half way into the twenty-teens.

In the six years since my initial survey, Thailand's dwindling number of stand-alone movie theaters have ever so slightly begun to creep into the collective national psyche. In some circles they have become objects of interest, if not for the nostalgia they invoke, then, perhaps, for some potential future use yet to be realized. The "what could be" if only there was a road map for how to sustainably reuse them.

Enter October 16th, 2015. Growing interest has at last led to action. A first step towards reclamation has taken place. No longer do Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters belong exclusive to the past. A theoretical future, in some limited capacity, seems to be on the horizon.

And so it was, this past October 16th. For what might very well be the first time in Thai history, a derelict porn theater temporarily reverted to its cinematic glory days. Director Jakrawal Nilthamrong, a rising star in Thailand's independent film scene, graced the screen of the Laem Thong Theater for the Thai premiere of his latest film, "Vanising Point."

For the first time in many years the name of a film graces the Laem Thong Theater's marquee.

Prepping the Laem Thong Theater for a film premiere crowd was no minor task. Years of bare minimum maintenance, combined with lax hygiene had taken a serious toll. Besides the basic issues - zero lighting on the marquee, seats with their stuffing spilling out, cracked and stained flooring, vermin - the air in the Laem Thong was so rancid that a mobile air-conditioning system had be brought in to cool and ventilate the place. Add to that the installation of a temporary sound and projection system, and the Vanishing Point premiere was indeed a major affair.

Scenes from the lobby.

Jakrawal Nilthamrong (center), director of Vanishing Point, poses for a photo with the Artistic Director of the Jim Thompson Art Center, Gridthiya Gaweewong (right). The Jim Thompson Foundation partially sponsored the event. 


Complimentary drinks at the concession stand.

Good times in a dank place

Auditorium shots while the movie was screening.

Part of the decision to use a run-down old porn theater for the premiere of Vanishing Point had as much to do with the plot of the film as it did as it did with any notion of reviving a dying movie theater. In Wise Kwai's Vanishing Point review, the film critic notes that "There's a sleazy 1970's vibe,"

" aesthetic that Jakrawal highlighted in choosing a cinema from that era as the venue for its debut in Bangkok. This business of life can be a dirty thing, and amid the mould and grime of Klong Toey's Laem Thong Theatre, [Jakrawal] wanted his audience to revel in it"  (Full article here)

Nonetheless, for the first time in Thai history a barely breathing theater was used for a movie premiere. That's the kind of special event that such places should be preserved for.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Culture reclaims the stand-alones

In the very near future, two very bold events will be taking place in two of Bangkok's forlorn stand-alone movie theaters. Both events are one-and-done affairs, but their very existence should serve as a cultural petri dish for what could be the next step in Thailand's - or at least Bangkok's - urban evolution.

Tomorrow, October 16th, one of Thailand's rising-star film makers will be holding the Thai premiere of his latest film at the Laem Thong Theater in the Klong Toey area of town. "Vanishing Point" marks the feature film debut for director Jakrawal Nilthamrong. Prior to tomorrow's Thai unveiling, the film had been making the rounds at the international film festival circuit where it has received a broad array of accolades and picked up some impressive trophies along the way. 

The Laem Thong Theater has been a cruising theater for years, but it will soon play host to a movie premiere

On October 22nd and November 5th, respectively, Vanishing Point will be getting theatrical release within the posh and polished halls of SF World Cinema in Bangkok and SF Maya in Chiang Mai.  

Stay tuned for photos and text on Vanishing Point's Laem Thong Theater premiere.


The other event to take place in one of Bangkok's off-the-radar porn theaters will be happening at The Chinatown Rama Theater on Yaowarat Road on October 22nd.

"Big Beats in Little China: 4 musical tales inside an old cinema house" promises audio-visual tantalization through a mixture of musical styles and accompanying projection. In a recent press release, show organizer EX NIHILO describes the hybrid event as 

"a unique experience bringing a lost era back to life through digital-analogue-dialogue in one of Chinatown's oldest movie theaters; an audio-visual spectacle using new and old techniques, a mix of instruments, performers and genres. A backdrop of moving images playing with different theatrical styles and fronted on stage with the most diverse mashup of BIG BEATZ to stimulate all your senses"

Situated in the lower level of a massive 1930's art deco office building, the theater defies almost all conventions of Thai movie theater typology. For that reason, along with its high profile location in the heart of Yaowarat, The Chinatown Rama has been the subject of fantasy of many a passerby; a veritable holy grail of cultural spaces for those with an eye for the exotic.

At long last, its dank confines will be seeing some action that won't result in a social disease.

The Chinatown Rama on Yaowarat Rd. The theater was also once known as the Sri Meuang and The New Laem Thong

What's so interesting about these two events? Well, lets look at it like this: 

Both the Chinatown Rama and The Laem Thong Theater are purpose built entertainment venues that were conceived to accommodate mainstream, commercial audiences. Over the years, mainstream movie-going has retreated from Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters, as the trend in the trade has switched to national chain multiplex theaters that are wedded in consumer matrimony to space-eating, car-centric shopping malls. This physical, as well as cultural shift in movie-going has laid waste to an entire geography of entertainment that was once very much a community affair. Hundreds upon hundreds of such theaters have been reduced to rubble across the country. Others, in their fall from grace, have been reoccupied by the most subaltern segments of society: public sex fiends. All the power to the fiends for their choice of release, but there's better uses for these spaces.

For two under-the-radar porn theaters to be hosting independently organized arts-related events is an absolute sea chance in how these old spaces are perceived. Instead of being considered outmoded anomalies, they are on the verge of revival. Therein lies a huge opportunity for Thailand. Artists and film makers are improving old purpose-built entertainment spaces, reactivating and reclaiming them from what would otherwise be an all but guaranteed demise. By further promoting this kind of cultural reclamation, particularly with regard the country's robust but dwindling inventory of disused stand-alone movie theaters, Thailand's reputation as a Southeast Asian arts and culture hub will rise.

Cultural capital, we shouldn't forget, is a much needed asset in this ever globalizing world.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Pata Theater - Yala, Thailand

Before the strife 
in southern deep
Movies shown 
and on the cheap

Picture houses 
grand and small
Brought great delight 
to one and all

Of three or four 
across this city
A brutal gem 
lurks in the nitty

Concrete bleak 
with retro fittings
A sight to see
 for the unwitting

To see this hall
one must enter
Into a zone
a bit off center

Market smells
of fallen rot
Waft through the air
to mar the spot

Rats with wings
perch on the wires
A blighted scene
to cull desires

In lobby filth
upon the ground
Unlucky man
upon is found

With habits etched
into his brain
Oh man! his actions
were insane

So much so
to not repeat
Just think, what might
one do with meat?

If not for man
oh slacken creeper
Venture in
we'd dig much deeper

But eerie sounds
and uncouth scents
Wicked sights
of people bent

Our gaze was stuck
upon facade
Without much luck
in land so odd

Yet old past glory
it must be stated
A noble story
to be related

Relate in photos
it must suffice
For Pata Theater
was once real nice

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Victory Recalled - By Ron Nguyen

The following essay was submitted to me by a reader of this blog. If anybody else out there has any stories related to Southeast Asia's movie theaters they'd like to share, feel free to send them along.

I remember going to the Rap Victory (Vietnamese, like Thai, puts the name after the establishment, “rap” meaning “theater”) in District 5 to see Chinese swordfight movies – “wuxia” I believe is the term for this film genre – those were the pre-kung fu era movies that featured swordfights and wirework, churned out like clockwork by the Shaw Brothers Studios. (Actually this was the beginning of the Golden Harvest Studios’ reign, which burst through the silver screen with “The Big Boss,” the debut feature of the kung fu movie legend known as Bruce Lee.) Rap Victory’s birth certificate also cited a Vietnamese name: for those who couldn’t pronounce “Victory” it was called Rap “Le Ngoc” (“Crystal & Diamonds”- possibly a wishful allusion to the grander state of affairs befitting an opera house?) In the press or advertisements it always went by “Victory Le Ngoc.” Maybe there was a chandelier or two hanging in its foyer? Memories fail me at this point.

I was still in junior high, which dated Rap Victory back to late 1960’s. Come to think of it the theater predated even the 1968 Tet Offensive, the turning point of the (North vs. South) Vietnam War, because I recall the fiery hubris of this tense period making reference to its location as a landmark, District 5 being one of the few districts in the city that saw troops engaging in direct combat. On the northern end of the same district, where my family lived, the Hotel Victory (no relation to the theater) which served as an American GI’s barrack was blown up one night one block away from our house.

I was glad to see from your blog that the theater still exists and even thrives (as of 2010) I might say, even though back in the days, the motorcycles had a proper “parking lot” (Saigon/HCMC has always been a two-wheeled vehicle town), a covered alley to one side of the theater, as opposed to being kept right there in the lobby. Maybe the new government was fond of the name “Victory,” therefore allowed the theater during the early postwar years to keep its doors open – and its name intact, albeit under a more apt Vietnamese translation: “Toan Thang” means total victory. (Had it not been for its new indigenous name I would not have recognized the place.) This is an indicative aspect of the war’s house-clearing aftermath because most names belonging to the former regime, names of streets, establishments, and institutions whether they ideologically stuck out like a sore thumb or not were summarily changed, or shall I say, eradicated.