This coming Saturday, July 18th, at 3:00PM the Thai Film Archive will be hosting a panel discussion on the revival of stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand. The discussants, myself and architectural preservationist Rungsima Kullapat, will be talking about the on-going renovations to Bangkok's historic Nang Loeng Cinema, and the prospects for further stand-alone movie theater revivals in Thailand.
The talk will be held at the Sri Salaya Theater of the Thai Film Archive, in Salaya town, Nakorn Pathom Province, Thailand (of course).
It is open to the public. The invitation card below, however, is only in Thai.
Some locals in Chanthaburi City, all of them over the half century mark in age, made mention that in adjacent Lam Sing District an old wood framed movie theater could be found along the main street in the tiny suburb of Pliw. Following their leads, I hired a driver and took off in that direction.
Unlike movie theaters in more dynamic settings, the Pliw Rama was not designed to dazzle. In tiny Pliw, there was no need to do so. The town's relatively remote rural setting didn't warrant a building that set the streetscape ablaze in architectural splendor. Especially not when endowed with the historic status as "first theater in town," as the Pliw Rama was. In its heyday, hand painted movie hoardings strapped to the front of the theater would have satisfied the aesthetic requirement, while also attracting inquisitive onlookers eager to learn of the latest celluloid treat.
The Pliw Rama's lack of ornamentation from its beginnings was ever more compounded in its post-cinematic present. Minus its original sign and marquee, and long devoid of its hand-painted advertisements, the Pliw Rama in its current condition does almost nothing to spark the imagination. But this anecdote is a mark of historical import in its own right.
Movie theaters like the Pliw Rama, although soundly constructed, are testament to the ad hoc nature of the movie theater business in small town Thailand years ago. Its corrugated tin and gypsum walls, neither of which are particularly attractive building materials in and of themselves, tell a story of a quick and cheap build to supply an in-demand service. While Thailand's post-World War Two agricultural economy was indeed expanding at the time, in rural areas like Pliw the wealth and technical know-how to build luxury cinema halls was still not yet there. The Pliw Rama was the physical outcome of that state of affairs.
When first built in 1956, the Pliw Rama's portico extended across the entire facade of the building, giving it a complete symmetry that has since been undone to make way for a small retail store on the front left of the theater. Ironically, the store houses a DVD rental shop.
Auditorium shots. Wooden trusses supported the gently pitched roof.
View through projection window.
Even the interior architecture was strictly functional. At the rear of the auditorium, a steep wooden staircase cuts a diagonal stripe across the room. Its destination: a wooden tinder box of a room cantilevered out from the wall, home to all the theater's projection and sound equipment.
The founder and owner of the Pliw Rama, Mr. Wisit Wongsuwan
As is often the case with the old style of family operated cinema halls, the owner of the Pliw Rama lived just next door. That's where I found Mr. Wisit Wongsuwan, the 80-plus year old founder of the Pliw Rama. After a bit of pleading for access, the spry octogenarian finally conceded, granting access not just to the building, but to that ephemeral record of a time and place passed hidden away in the gauntlet of his memories. From it, Wisit revisited a time when the Pliw Rama was the first place around for villagers to view a motion picture. "I had the first movie theater in the entire district," he boasted. "Because I was so successful, other people in the district began to build their own theaters. By the end there was six of them in total."
Facade at an angle. The exterior wall is all corrugated tin.
While saying our goodbyes, Wisit nonchalantly mentioned a grim bit of news."It's a good thing you came when you did," he said. "We're going to tear [the theater] down in the very near future. It serves no purpose anymore."
Slowly but surely the idea of using some of the regions classic stand-alone cinema halls to hold film festivals is taking root. This June, two different festivals in two Southeast Asian metropolises will be making use of their own historic movie theaters to do just that.
Beginning yesterday, May 29th, the 3rd annual Memory! International Film Heritage Festival got underway in Yangon. As the name suggests, viewing fair features a series of films from a wide array of countries from various time periods. The highlight of the 9 day long festival, however, is that these free screenings are being held exclusively at the classic, mid-century Burmese PolychromeNay Pyi Daw Cinema on Sule Pagoda Road, one of the country's most elegant movie theaters.
The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon
Later in June, from the 10th to the 17th, the 2nd Silent Film Festival in Thailand, put on by our dear friends over at the Film Archive, will be screening a tantalizing selection of films from the silent era at the legendary Lido Theater in Siam Square, Bangkok. The grand finale screening of The Epic of Everest, a 1924 travelogue-style documentary about an ill-fated attempt to reach the peak of Mount Everest, will take place at Thailand's grandest remaining stand-alone movie theater, the Scala.
The Scala Theater, Siam Square, Bangkok.
The Lido Theater, Siam Square, Bangkok
Use of these storied but undervalued theaters as primary venues for film festivals and other cultural events is relatively new to Southeast Asia. Region-wide, the civic value inherent in old movie theaters has been little considered in the eyes of developers and city planning agencies. "Out of date" has been the sentiment most often attached to them. As a result, many of these increasingly rare buildings have been lost to redevelopment, with little serious consideration given to their rebirth. But with film festivals like these two in Yangon and Bangkok, that trend could start to reverse.
When crowd-drawing cultural events are held in such theaters, their definition transforms from urban blight to urban asset. Such is the logical outcome of bringing a flurry of foot traffic and its accompanying economic stimuli to any one destination. Instead of being in the way of new development projects, shopping malls or condo towers, say, they can, in theory, become the focal point of renewal efforts, creating a domino effect of investment. It's like having ones cake and eating it, too.
This kind of urban development - the integration of historic structures with new buildings tailored to contemporary tastes - is a hallmark of healthy and sustainable urban growth. Such concepts have already found regional precedent thanks to the recent reopening of Singapore's Capitol Theatre complex, a mixed-use retail/residential/entertainment development that spawned a restored Capitol Theatre as an anchor and show-piece of the project.
As the film festivals in Yangon and Bangkok are about to emphasize, there can indeed be great value, both cultural and economic, to preserving stand-alone movie theaters.
About a year ago, news reached the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project about the pending renovations occurring at the long-dormant Capitol Cinema down in Singapore. One year later and those plans have indeed come to fruition. The Capitol now serves as the anchor of a major residential/retail development in the heart of one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant cities.
Hopefully municipalities and developers in neighboring countries are taking note of this tactful (tasteful) case of cinema hall revitalization.
At the height of its cinemania, Chanthaburi City had six active stand-alone movie theaters serving its citizens. That's six theaters in a town that can be crossed on foot in about 20 minutes. Around almost every corner in Chanthaburi of the 1980's one would invariably come across a movie theater; its neon hues casting a soft glow on the asphalt streets below.
Of those six theaters, five are still standing, and four are still in recognizable condition. One of them can be found just around the corner from the central traffic circle in the heart of town. That one would be the Siam Rama. While not the most ornate of the quartet, it does have a noteworthy feature. If approached from said traffic circle, the Siam Rama creates a quintessential terminated vista. That is, it stands at the head of a perpendicular street, causing the view to have a definitive end point.
In the nomenclature of New Urbanism, a terminated vista is a desirable city attribute. It gives a street a destination point for pedestrians to gravitate towards. A street terminating in a movie theater is a dream come true from any pious New Urbanist.
This theater, lamentably, has long been closed. In its second life it serves a function most antithetical to New Urbanist theory - a parking garage.
Nonetheless, it stands. That in itself is winning state of affairs.
The Siam Rama, Chanthaburi's most famous terminated vista
Chanthaburi's topography lends itself to dramatic building settings. Near its center, the land swells upwards into a sizable hill, texturing the otherwise flatland monotony that spreads west from the Chanthaburi River. In pre-modern times it would be easy to imagine a townscape capped by a mansion of Golden Teak, home to the local noble family, perched stoically upon said hill; a regal view of yonder domain below.
The modern equivalent to the lord's manor came in the form of a temple of cinema, which - though not exactly the most extravagant piece of architecture in this case - must have been quite a site when all aglow in neon, and up wrapped in colorful movie billboards. The Sri Burapha Theater was its name.
The Sri Burapha Theater at the highest point in Chanthaburi.
The Sri Burapha has all the elements of a Thai movie theater from the 1970's; a concrete frame topped by dimensional rooftop signage; a large, sloping auditorium that probably had a seating capacity of near one thousand; and an open air lobby area, now taken over by food carts and folding metal tables.
Word on the street had it that the dilapidated theater had been out of business for more than 20 years. Now it's little more than a trash pit.
Let there be light beams
A poster case hangs from the wall in the outdoor lobby of the Sri Burapha Theater.
Classic dimensional signage
Chances are slim to nil that the Sri Burapha will ever find new life as a cultural center or cinema hall. In all likelihood it will meet the wrecking ball as Chanthaburi begins its slow road to revival. But for the time being it continues to serve as a reminder to the people of Chanthaburi that movie theaters were once an integral part of the urban geography.
With a large percentage of Thailand's movie theaters already documented, my mind wanders to future expeditions in neighboring countries. Last summer a glimpse of Malaysia's cinema treasures was kindly shared by a fellow architectural photographer, sparking my interest in exploring movie theater relics in that country. At this point, however, the likelihood of that happening remains distant.
In the meantime, please enjoy this series of the Federal Theatre in Malacca, submitted by Malaysian-based photographer Raz Talhar.
Raz says that the Federal was built in 1965 by the Shaw organization and could accommodate up to 1130 poeple.
It was last used as a furniture store, though now sits abandoned. The immediate area around the theater, however, is undergoing a massive redevelopment. As of Raz's last visit in late 2014, the theater plot was sitting behind large metal hoardings.
It would be nice to see the developers incorporate a revived Federal Theatre into their upcoming project, but I would't hold my breath on that.