Sunday, January 10, 2010

Toan Thang Cinema - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Previously on the SEA Movie Theater Project, your humble narrator was driven from a Saigonese rap by lascivious goons out for unlawful carnal knowledge. Having escaped unharmed, I was determined to find a praiseworthy theater somewhere in the maze of Saigon. The Toan Thang Cinema offered just that. Or close enough, anyway.

A constant stream of motorbikes roll past the Toan Thang Cinema

On April 30th, 1975, after battling American firepower for the ten years prior, North and South Vietnam were reunited into one. America's war of attrition and the Republican regime they backed in the South turned out to be no match for the resilience and staying power of Uncle Ho and his guerrilla fighters. Soon after this seminal date, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and a one party communist government took helm of the country's political apparatus. For ten years to come Vietnam was closed to all foreign entities aside from its most trusted communist allies, as antebellum reconstruction began in haste. Among the new additions to the southern metropolis during this era was the Toan Thang Cinema - a 4-screen movie theater in the city's 5th District with a name aptly meaning "Victory." Ladies and gentleman, the Victory Rap.

To the best of my knowledge (which is limited) the Toan Thang is one of the few remaining rap in the city built during the post-war years which hasn't fallen into disrepair or disrepute. In conversation with one of the employees, however, I learned of the dismal fate this svelte neighborhood stand-alone will face. The Toan Thang is owned by Saigon Movies Media, a local theater chain now in the process of divesting itself of a few of its aging picture houses, presumably with an eye to cash in on the rising value of the land they stand on. Just last month, for instance, the company tore down its centrally located Vinh Quang Cinema. A day late and a camera short! But on a brighter note, some of SMM's other theaters have recently undergone complete makeovers, giving them the dual aesthetic of brand-new and ugly-as-sin: a sure shot way of making a burgeoning middle class feel moneyed. Well, at least those theaters will survive, though it doesn't make up for the fact that a 1970's classic like the Toan Thang will likely fall prey to the steel dragon.

Employees of the Toan Thang Cinema pose in the lobby. The woman's name is Thuy, the theater's de facto English language spokesperson.

Motorbikes parked in the lobby

Ticket booth

A friendly young employee poses stoically beside snacks.

Twin-seaters and a blue screen

A late afternoon showing of the inferior Whiteout was the only logical option for non-speakers of Vietnamese like myself and my comrade. We bought our tickets and were sent up to rap #4 on the second level, where American R&B was playing over the Dolby prior to the movie. A positive sign greeted us: the auditorium was clean, or so it seemed in the dim light. Our gnarly debut experience with a Saigonese rap bred suspicion in us both. Assurance of safety was in order before settling in. All was clear, though. The only other patrons were three teenage couples, squeezing up close in the two-seater chairs comprising the center section. Apparently Vietnamese theater owners of yore were cognizant that installing seats designed for couples would be a good way to increase revenue. "Where else are young people supposed to get busy in a city as crowded as Saigon," noted my friend. It was true! As soon as the reel started spinning, a young couple two rows in front of us locked faces and stayed that way for the better part of the film. Perhaps this was the innocent origins of the deviant theater we'd visited the day before? But then again, maybe this one wasn't so innocent either.

Having seen Whiteout once already, I took advantage of the extra big seats in my own devious little way by stretching out for a nap. Indeed, a nap in a rap that will soon live only in teenage memory of fast times and first dates.

A young couple leaves the Toan Thang after two hours of love in a movie theater.

The Toan Thang Cinema at night, looking very swanky all lit up.