Saturday, December 31, 2011

Nang Lit Cinema Update - Savannakhet, Laos

Savannakhet has undergone a number of transformations since my fist visit there three years ago. Chief among them is a construction boom on the north end of town, near where Highway No. 9 crosses the city. Most of the construction is in the shape of industrial facilities, part of the rapidly growing Savannakhet-Xeno Special Economic Zone, a 35 kilometer stretch of converted rice paddy along Highway No. 9, where foreign investment is being lured via tax shelter.

Highway 9 is the Lao portion of a trans-Mekong Sub Region road expected to link the port of Danang on Vietnam's eastern seaboard with the coast of Burma. The Vietnamese, Lao and Thai portions of this road are already up and running, thanks in large to Japanese (JICA) development grants. Fractious Burma, on the other hand, has yet to be linked.

This flurry of activity on the northern end of Savannakhet, stimulated by international trucking and investment, has yet to jump start the old French-colonial core to the south, which functions at a sleep walkers' pace; partially inhabited, partially inebriated, partially fixed in a malaise of disinvestment 36 years in the making.

But from the SEA Movie Theater Project's perspective, there is one change to the town's historic core that is of epic importance: the former Nang Lit Cinema has been revived.

In mid- 2010, the Nang Lit was leased out by a private exhibitor and has been quietly back in the movie business ever since. Screenings are not daily, unfortunately, a luxury made unfeasible by a dearth of incoming films and a population so small that the market is saturated after only a handful of screenings.

During my five nights in Savannakhet, the revived Nang Lit - now called the Khounsavan Cinema - sat dormant, its battered carbon-arc projectors motionless on their mounts. The next scheduled film wasn't until early January.

An architectural medley, the Nang Lit Cinema.

The honeycomb-yellow paint job over the vented upper lobby wall tastefully accents this unique architectural feature. But the new sign is about as bad as you can get.

One of the most unique facades I've seen on a theater anywhere. Too bad the original free-standing letters are missing from above the cornice.

A lapse in operation didn't keep me from getting into the old Nang Lit. The caretaker/projectionist, a Mr. Mith, was kind enough to open the gates and show me around the theater's inner sanctums.

A ten year veteran of the building, Mith claimed that current Nang Lit, dating to around 1970, was built as an upgraded version of a much older wooden theater which preceded it. The original owner, a Laotian of Chinese descent, named the theater after his daughter, 'Lit,' operating it in stiff competition with another three theaters which once vied for the patronage of Savannakhet's entertainment seekers.

In the wake of Pathet Lao ascendancy - May, 1975 - the owner and his family crossed over into Thailand en route to refuge in America, forever relinquishing their cinema to memory and seizure by the communist regime. But to this day, the family legacy is easily one of the most striking buildings to grace Savannakhet's gridded streets.

Here's the view of upper lobby, the reverse side of the perforated wall. The vented aspect is a fairly common architectural feature among mid-20th century theaters in Southeast Asia. When many of these theaters were built, consistent electricity supply was lacking. Theaters were powered by diesel generators (still the case in Burma). Perforated walls and open air lobbies thus served as shady, cool waiting spaces without squandering valuable energy on A/C.

Up leads to the projection room, down to the lower lobby.

Tiled balcony entrance arch.

The back rows of the balcony are extremely steep, well above the top of the screen.

Two carbon-arc projectors made by the Peerless company, formerly of Omaha, Nebraska. The projectors date to the Nang Lit's redesigning back in 1970.

In the projection room, I chanced on some enticements beyond the theater's architectural craftmanship. There on the floor, beside two old carbon-arc projectors sat reels of film, some partially unraveled, others neatly stored in boxes. "What's on these?" I inquired of Mith.

"Old movies," he replied nonchalantly. "Mostly from India."

Now, it must be kept in mind that in all of my theater explorations, only once or twice have I encountered coveted reels of old film. Movie collectors and film preservationists have been known to pay handsomely for original movie prints. A few years ago, 25 minutes worth of footage cut from Fritz Lang's silent classic Metropolis, long believed destroyed, was rediscovered in Argentina. The full length version has since been restored and released in theaters around the world.

Recalling the Metropolis case, dreams of fortunes made from the sale of original movie prints crept into my brain. I could fund this project for the next three years if I got hold of a rare film, I schemed, maybe even put some money in my pocket.

"Would you be interested in selling any of these prints," I opened, imagining a copy of some long-forgotten title from Bengali director Satyajit Ray among the stock.

"No, sir. They are not for sale."

Oh well, at least I tried.

So I didn't walk out of the Nang Lit Cinema cradling thousands of dollars worth of rare Indian movie prints from the 1970's. Anyway, all the money in the world pales in comparison with the satisfaction of having seen - with my own two eyes - the tepid revival of one of Laos' few remaining stand-alone movie palaces.

Happy New Year all!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Swimming in the Atlantic

A post featuring new cinema sightings would be more my speed right now, but I'm still being held hostage to travel and its lack of creature comforts. In place of new photos, I hope that this identity-revealing article on the work of your "Projectionist" will suffice. It's a few weeks old already.

That it's published in the Atlantic Magazine's piping new e-zine the Atlantic Cities makes me very happy.

New photos coming soon!!!!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ruins of a Socialist Cinema Hall: The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship revisited

This was my second visit to Udomxay, and I still find myself captivated by its withering hulk of socialist architecture. Its lone cinema hall - The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship.

I wrote about this theater a few years ago after my initial visit. In sum, it was built as a gift to the city of Udomxay by the Vietnamese government. Big comrade to little comrade, back when the honorific had a place in the regional lexicon.

Standing in front of it you can feel the communist ideology radiating out. The glory of the Party, its infallibility, its omnipresent weight leading the way to a workers paradise.

This architecture and this ideology seem so distant when juxtaposed with the hideous shape of capitalism that has taken root in Udomxay. Of course, one might argue that the Lao-Viet C.H.F. is pretty repulsive in its own right.

Party slogans "Long live the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, long live the Lao People's Party" hang above where the screen once was.

Two years after my first visit, the place is noticeably deteriorated. There is simply no way that it will be around much longer. So if you are traveling through northern Laos, I recommend a trip to Udomxay just to see it. Bask, for a few moments, in the remnants of a failed system. You will not be disappointed.

For a little bit of make-believe perspective.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cinema Hall Travelography

Movie theater lovers! Don't go away! I'm now at the Luang Prabang Film Festival, loitering around my exhibition and catching some great flicks.

Once this is done I'll be taking to the road again, exploring some Laotian towns I've never been to.

And don't forget that there are still some gems to come from Isan and Northern Thailand, including a series on Thailand's lowest priced - 20 Baht!!! - movie theater.

Stay tuned for the latest in Southeast Asian movie theater travelography.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Exhibit at Luang Prabang Film Festival, Dec. 3rd - 7th

The UNESCO World Heritage City and former Lao capital, Luang Prabang, will in December be hosting the 2nd annual Luang Prabang Film Festisval. Over 50 films from across Southeast Asia will be screened at the 5-day long event taking place from December 3rd - 7th.

Check out the promo video below:

Included in the festivities, a photo exhibition from the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project will be held at Project Space Gallery. So if you're around for the movies, don't forget to drop by and check out some photos of old movie theaters.

There will be lots of events and various kinds of screenings taking place this year. I am especially looking forward to the collection of Pathet Lao propaganda films from the 1960's and 70's that the Ministry of Information has dug out of its vaults.

Luang Prabang is easily one of the most beautiful little cities in the region, if not the world. You'd be hard pressed to find a more opportune place to hold a film fest.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Sri Pong Cineplex - Phimai District, Khorat, Thailand

The civilizational record in Phimai dates back ten centuries to the once-powerful Ankorian Khmers. Masters of hydrology like the current Bangkok authorities could only dream, imperial Angkor built its empire through the careful retention and management of water. They legitimized their rule via monumental architecture, like the temple shown here in the center of modern Phimai town.

Phimai Historical Park, with its manicured landscaping and curation, is the showcase of the town. The rest of the city feeds off its magnanimity, takes a cue from it.

A wall surrounds Phimai. Not an ancient one like can be found ringing other Thai towns, but a modern wall built of concrete and rebar. The wall has succeeded in keeping out invaders. Most notably, hypermarket retailers and big chain stores, a lone 7-11 the exception. Local moms and pops are protected from such predatory schemers. Car congestion is also nipped in the bud by this defensive mechanism. The result is one of the most pleasant towns Thailand has to offer.

The insulation provided by the wall and the pride taken in Phimai's ancient stone heritage was palpable. Locals seemed to relish the quiet, the human scale and neighborly atmosphere. It was detectable at the Sri Pong Cineplex, where expectant crowds, mostly families and young couples, gathered under the theater's awning, reclined in easy conversation while waiting for the doors to open.

A plain, but honest design.
The Sri Pong is a second generation movie theater. Just six years ago it replaced an old wooden theater dating to the 1950's, which was apparently falling apart. Instead of easing out of the theater business, using the land for some lesser purpose - a parking lot, a warehouse, a watering hole with cheap plastic chairs and tables - the proprietary family built anew, naming it in honor of the husband's deceased father-cum-founder of the old wooden theater, Mr. Pong.

At six years old the Sri Pong is the newest independently-owned stand-alone I've come across is Thailand.

Young step-climbers.

Three teens pull up on a motorbike to see what's in the movie queue.

Being as new as it is, the Sri Pong is equipped with all the latest technologies. The Dolby Digital surround sound was crisp, the projection sharp. A Thai rendition of the Kurasawa masterpiece "Roshomon," called "The Outrage," proved the point, and turned out to be a decent movie in the process.

The Sri Pong Cineplex is the cherry on the top of a great little town.

The owner collects viewing fare at the door, as young patrons shuffle through.

Rolling credits, departing crowds.

The grand exit was copacetic, cinematic even, left alone under the fluorescent external lights of the Sri Pong. It's this quality of the stand-alone theater which attracts me so: whether solitary or in the presence of a large crowd, the exit from the theater to the streets marks a return from fantasy to reality in which the two are temporarily blended. An intangible, maybe, coming from one who's spent his life on foot, but no less real.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cinema sentiments in the Asia Sentinel

One of my favorite sources for news across Asia just published a piece I wrote about Southeast Asia's vanishing stand-alones.

See it here in the Asia Sentinel

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Saeng Si Theater - Bua Yai District, Khorat Province, Thailand

Bua Yai is a train town. A train junction town, to be more specific. Here the Nong Khai - Bangkok line grows a spur which cuts over to the west, towards Chaiyaphum Province - though never actually reaching the provincial capital itself.

Remnants of old Thailand, the one that grew up in the decades prior to the highway boom, are easily found in train towns. Streets and sois developed in the absence of the car in train towns. Buildings tend to huddle together, dense, low-rise, along narrow streets, stretching out like ribbons parallel to the tracks. This is where commerce would have been at its most brisk in the days before trucking.

Only river towns can rival train towns for the lover of antiquity. Riparian trade predates the train system, thus spawned a stock of vernacular architecture, mostly wooden, older and increasingly harder to find than what developed in the era of the locomotive. Since neither the train nor rivers represent particularly robust portions of the economy these days, both river towns and train towns tend to retain older charms lost to towns which sit on major highways. For the best in early-modern Thai antiquity, one must visit a town which has both a train station and a river port, but no highway.

Nestled within Bua Yai's narrow lanes, just a block from the train tracks, stands the Saeng Si Theater. Presumably a product of the Thai movie theater boom years (late 1960's to the mid-1970's), today the Saeng Si limps on, a shadow of its former self, with movies only shown during weekends. Fortunately for me, it was a Saturday when I was in Bua Yai. Unfortunately for me, the flooding down in central Thailand had impeded the distribution company from delivering its scheduled film. The Saeng Si Theater was dealt another blow, while I was left kicking the can in Bua Yai, unable to deliver on what I came to do.

The entrance to the Saeng Si Theater has been changed from the front to the side door. The front of the theater has been rented out to a clothing shop. Something tells me this one won't be around much longer.

Door designs

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Chumphae Theater - Chumphae, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand

Roaming Chumphae inevitably brought me to its other, much older, decommissioned cinema in the heart of the town's traditional commercial core. Long departed as a house of entertainment, the former Chumphae Theater nonetheless has been smartly repurposed to serve a current need. The building's walls were removed, leaving only structural support columns, its facade and roof, as the former auditorium was turned into a fresh market. In place of its rows of seats, dozens of vendors, hawking everything from raw meats to cheap electronics, have set up shop. Locals refer to is as the old Chumphae Theater Market.

Facade of the former Chumphae Theater. The outline of the marquee is still visible just above the tin awning.

Market interior, looking towards what was once the rear of the theater, and balcony-level seating.

Reintegrating out-moded structures, be they old movie theaters or otherwise, when appropriate, is a cornerstone of urban renovation and renewal. It not only saves on costs of demolition and reconstruction, but it draws a link between the past and present, imbues a sense of historical identity.

Ryszrard Kapuscinski perhaps put it best regarding the tendency to destroy old neighborhoods in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku to build anew:

"Today expansion is difficult and risky. As a rule, broadening ends in narrowing, and that is why nations must satisfy the instinct for breadth with a feeling of depth, which means reaching into the depths of history to demonstrate their strength and significance."

(Kapuscinski, Ryszard. 1993 - Imperium. Vintage Press)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Photo Exhibit at Cinemanila

A second film festival exhibit in as many months is in the works for the SEA Movie Theater Project. Cinemanila International Film Festival, the Philippines premiere film festival - also its longest running - will be displaying a series of my photos at one of their venues. I won't be in attendance this time around like I was at last month's Busan International Film Festival, but that shouldn't detract from the good times. Among the Cinemanila festivities, one of my favorite horror directors of all time, the legendary Dario Argento, will be receiving a lifetime achievement award.

The 13th annual Cinemanila Int'l Film Fest will be taking place from November 11th - 17th, in the Tauguig City area of Metro Manila. If you should happen to be in the vicinity, check out some hot new flicks from around the world. And keep an eye out for some photos of stand-alone movie theaters!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Chumphae Cineplex - Chumphae, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand

Now where was I? Burma, right? Somewhere in Bago Division, if I recall. That was way back in January. Resumption of the project begins again in Thailand's mostly-bucolic northeast: the vast Lao-speaking domains of Isan. Of the all the Thai regions I've covered, only Isan has a significant collection of operating stand-alones. It's been a goal to shoot them all while they're still around, before chain-store homogeneity overtakes and undermines them, sucking their clientele into a vortex of prefabricated chintz.

The journey begins in Chumphae, a westerly district of Khon Kaen Province and frontier for lowland wet-rice agriculture. Any further west and the mountains of Petchabun come into play. The approach to Chumphae along highway 12 - which runs the width of north-central Thailand from border to border - is marked by a drastic shift from rural to urban, rice paddy and cane field to concrete slab. From the road, it looks as if an entire Bangkok neighborhood has been broken off from the megalopolis and flung into the countryside, one enormous discarded piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I am reminded that in Thailand, concrete is not only the building material of choice, but it is the building material of empire.

To escape from this concrete monotony, which is wholly encompassing in Chumphae, a near monopoly, one must turn to the movie theater - which is also made of concrete. Reprieve can be found in the form of an enjoyable film, but more firmly in the notion that the Chumphae Cineplex, as it is named, serves a function not unlike a public square: a space for social interaction, or quiet relaxation. I found a bit of both in the spacious and airy lobby of the this late-addition stand-alone.

A hand-painted billboard advertises the latest Thai ghost-comedy, Ban Phee Pob. Behind it, the Chumphae Cineplex is aglow in morning light.

Just like the Chumphae Cineplex, a large portion of Thai stand-alone movie theaters are set back in courts, plazas, or otherwise removed from street-side adjacency. Although the space in front is often used by movie-goers to park their motorbikes, the distance between theater and thoroughfare serves as insulation against noise, pollution and noise pollution. As public space is painfully absent in most Thai urban areas, a downtown cinema, with an open-air lobby, is indeed, akin to a park.

Simply designed, with a true functionalist aesthetic, the Chumphae Cineplex .

The term "cineplex," when applied to a single-screen, stand-alone movie theater is a little misleading. Breaking the compounded word into two we are left with "cinema" and "complex," which implies a plurality of parts. Conventionally speaking, a cineplex will either have more than one screen, or more than one function. But in the case of many late-era Thai stand-alones, of which there are few, the term is applied for strictly semantic reasons. Cineplex sounds more up-to-date, more fashionably modern than the traditional terms of "cinema", "theater," or, in the Thai lexicon, "rama." So don't be fooled! The Chumphae Cineplex, along with a handful of theaters to come, are in actuality stand-alones.

Lower lobby view

In the shark's jaws and ticket vendor's hands

In a way, an art gallery.

A cinematic transaction.

Upper lobby.

Lobby lounging

The Chumphae Cineplex auditorium has just over 200 seats. Not a giant like those built during the height of Thailand's movie theater boom. But that, of course, was a different era.


Thailand's all-time highest grossing film, Suriyothai, did wonders for the domestic movie theater industry. In some cases, theaters which had gone out of business in recent years prior, reopened for exclusive screenings of this royally produced (and I mean that literally) historical epic. That was in 2001, the same year the Chumphae Cineplex came into existence. It might be a stretch to say that this late-era stand-alone was built to capitalize on the publicity of Suriyothai, but the timing didn't hurt. More generally, one can easily imagine desperate exhibitors, owners of theaters on the verge of shutting down, getting their hopes up as capacity crowds turned out on a nightly basis for the propaganda. A palliative event, however, in the long run. Demographic shifts, the spread of home entertainment, combined with the opportunism of multiplex chains have ensured a slow death for the independent theater operator.

The manager of the Chumphae Cineplex - a bizarrely attractive woman to be running a small town movie theater - casually mentioned that she would be closing it permanently in the near future if attendance didn't pick up.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back on Track

After a long, restrained hiatus, new life and new images are soon to come. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

American Movie Palaces, Up Close

About a week ago, a friend turned me on to the web-site of yet another kindred spirit who's gone out of his way to show us the unparalleled beauty of America's tattered palaces. He calls his site After the Final Curtain. If you like what goes up at the SEA Movie Theater Project, have a look at this one. It'll knock your socks off!

Auditorium of Loew's Palace Theater of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Courtesy of "After the Final Curtain"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Busan Cinema Center - Busan, South Korea

For the past three years I've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stand-alone movie theaters. Describing them, chronicling their existence, their atmosphere and their frequent demise. Between a few Southeast Asian countries, I've visited over two-hundred of them, some palatial and grand, others dingy, faded or on the verge of collapse. Each possesses a unique character worthy of documentation. On rare occasions, I've written about theater treasures like Yangon's Thamada, or the Scala in Bangkok; how such theaters exemplify the spirit of the times in which they were built, the aspirations of their builders and the forward looking gaze of the societies they served. Such beauties continue to dazzle decades after their construction. But this past weekend I was in a movie theater that, for all its grandeur and architectural magnitude, its aspirations and representations, defies anything I have ever seen.

The Busan Cinema Center, opening in conjunction with the 16th annual Busan International Film Festival, elevates movie-going to a level seldom seen. It recaptures the essence of what it's all about. The sanctity of the process is reborn, as the movie-goer is reminded that a trip to the cinema used to be about more than just being entertained.

The Busan Cinema Center

It's no easy task to summarize the Busan Cinema Center. For one, at over 60,000 square meters of floor space, it's enormous. Not a structure that can be taken in in one gaze without the benefit of a bird's eye view. The design was put together by the Austrian firm of Coop Himmelblau, known for their post-modern architectural extremism. In keeping with their extreme theme, their Busan Cinema Center includes the worlds largest cantilevered roof, rising dramatically from a single column and suspended over an open air plaza. This feature has an awe inspiring affect. Once under the cantilevered roof - especially at night, when the ceiling lighting system is activated - the transportation process begins. Welcome to the world's preeminent cathedral of cinema.

Busan. International. Film. Festival.

Funding for the Busan Cinema Center was largely shouldered by the municipality of Busan. As proof of its commitment to civic engagement, a 4,000 seat open air theater comprises the most dramatic of viewing options. This is where the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival, along with the awards ceremonies, took place.

Movie-goers en route to the Busan International Film Fest (BIFF) and the inaugural run of the Busan Cinema Ceneter.

Entrance to the Cine Mountain portion of the Cinema Center: the nine-story tall home to three permanent movie halls and one mixed use venue.

The above photo depicts the entrance to the Cine Mountain, the main functional portion of the Center, housing four auditoriums on three levels. I was only able to enter one of the auditoriums during my visit: the 841 seat, triple tiered Haneulyeon Theater - a multipurpose auditorium, just as well suited for concerts and live performance as it is film. Elegant wooden seats topped with cherry red cushioning echo the red balcony surface, which wraps around the side walls of the theater like a ribbon.

Sloping walls.

Entering the lobby of the Cine Mountain, into a sleek world of film.

A glass enclosed elevator brings movie-goers to the second and third floor balconies of the Haneulyeon Theater.

Elevated view via escalator

The upper levels of the Cine Mountain hold three auditoriums: one medium sized and two small. These three auditoriums will hold regular commercial screenings year round when BIFF is not using them.

Upper lobby lounging

Concession lines

The crowning part of this entire experience for me was having a collection of SEA Movie Theater Project images beautifully displayed in the lobby of the Busan Cinema Center.

Here's a few shots of the exhibit:

In a post-modern sense, the Busan Cinema Center does for Korea what the Sydney Opera House does for Australia: it confirms, definitively, a level of commitment to the arts and culture, and an inspired disposition for the entire world to see. It creates a recognizable emblem. But ultimately, it lifts Korea and its film industry onto the world stage. A well done and well deserved achievement.