Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Nakorn Luang Rama - Bangkok, Thailand

Featured below is the Nakorn Luang Rama, formerly of Jaransanitwong soi 29/1 in Bangkok. The grand old 2nd-run theater had a seating capacity of 1,534.

It was built in 1979 and closed down in 2005, before meeting its ultimate fate in September of 2011. 

Judging by its architecture, it looks as if the Nakorn Luang was designed by the same person that did the Ngamwongwan Theater, otherwise it's an identical copy.  

Sympathy for this stalled if not dead project still runs high. Many thanks to long-time contributor to the SEA Movie Theater Project and prolific movie theater chronicler in his own, Mr. Peep, for sending these photos along.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A reminder of better days at the Washington

The below photos depict the Washington Theater in a slightly more decorative light than the previous post. At the time of their taking in the early 2000's, its movie screening days had already past and the Mambo cabaret had taken up the lease.  

The Washington Theater once stood behind the street side marquee and signage pictured above. 

In its heyday during the last quarter of the 20th century, the Washington was a premiere Sukhumvit Road movie destination, particularly for Hollywood and Bollywood films. The theater's parent company, the Asia Rama Network, circulated movies between its numerous first and second run theaters throughout metropolitan Bangkok, nearly all of which have been demolished.

These two shots come courtesy of the thoughtful Mr. Peep, a long time contributor to this blog.

Washington Theater movie ticket

Monday, December 10, 2012

Washington is destroyed!

Word has it that the former epicenter of Bangkok's Washington Square - the Washington Theater - is in the process of being demolished. 

Though shuttered as a theater for more than a decade, the Washington represents Cold War Thailand at its pinnacle. The surrounding "square" was lined with bars and brothels that catered to American soldiers and ex-pats left over from the Vietnam War and others who gravitated to it in the war's aftermath. Needless to say, the name of the square and its anchor theater hearken back to the "special relationship" between Thailand and America during the Cold War.   

Architecturally speaking, the Washington was never the most glamorous of Thai theaters. But for better or worse, an important vestige of 20th century social history is will be lost with its demise. 


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Colorful Rot

The ruins of the Tang Sia Huad Rama in Nakorn Pathom are haunting. Why the abandoned theater didn't meet the same fate as the shop houses that once flanked it is unknown. It could be a warehouse, or some other kind of storage facility, I suppose.

Whatever it's post-cinema purpose, I'm glad it's there. And equally glad that my comrade had the consideration to document it and send it this way, to be displayed in the public domain. Colorful rot from central Thailand.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

SEA Movie Theater Project invited to Jakarta documentary film fest

If ever there was a perfect event for the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project to exhibit at it's the upcoming ChopShots Documentary Film Festival being held in Jakarta, Indonesia from December 5th to the 9th.  ChopShots has compiled 60 documentary films from around the world, covering a diverse range of topics that's bound to satisfy all comers.

Among the many sideshows will be a 24-image series from the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend this inaugural film fest, but that shouldn't stop anybody who happens to be in the metro-Jakarta area from going. Don't miss out on this most stimulating event.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Burmese polychrome

If there's any style of cinema architecture that can be said to be unique to any of the countries I surveyed, it would be the polychromes of Burma. Only five were encountered in all, but scouring old photos revealed at least another two which have since been demolished.

This cosmetic touch, achieved by way of paint or tile, turns an otherwise mundane facade into a spectacle. 

Here are the five that I documented between 2010 and 2011.   

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema - Yangon

The Shae Saung Cinema - Yangon

The Nyunt Cinema - Bago

The San Pya Cinema - Magwe

The Thida Cinema - Yangon

Monday, October 29, 2012

Burmese Art Deco

In my down time, the mind wanders back to recent excursions. To the frenzied streets of Burma and those Art Deco picture houses that enhance what we pedestrians see. After the British had accepted their resign and before iron fists clamped down on the country, Classical Art Deco cinema halls were one of two architectural styles to proliferate. Here are a few for your viewing pleasure.

The Thwin Cinema - Yangon

The Tun Thiri Cinema - Pyay

The Kemarat Cinema - Kyang Tung

The Myoma Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Shwe Hintha Cinema - Bago

The Win Cinema - Tounggoo

The Yazuna Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Aung Mingala Cinema - Dawei

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ciao for now.

Regular followers of the SEA Movie Theater Project have probably noticed the dearth of posts in recent months. Sorry to drag it out like this, folks, but truth be told, I am fresh out of material. In the past I could remedy that by setting out from my Chiang Mai apartment on field trips around Thailand, or into neighboring Burma, Laos or Vietnam. A steady supply of documentary photography was always in store to keep the faithful entertained, if not a little bit informed.

It's a new ball game now. At least for the time being I have decided to spend some time in America, without any immediate prospects of a return to Southeast Asia. Believe me, this is a painful adjustment. And nothing pains me more than not being able to work this project (I've tried documenting American movie theaters, but I can't muster the same devotion to it).

So an indefinite lull in activity awaits, but by no means is this the end of the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. To the contrary, I have a bunch of irons in the fire as I type. Besides my usual attempts to land grants and fellowships, I am slowly piecing together a book about the stand-alone theaters of Burma. That's still a ways from completion, but it is in the works nonetheless.

As some of you may already be aware, there is currently a series of SEA Movie Theater Project photos on display at Bangkok's Jim Thompson Art Center. That will be running to through October. Please check it out if you want to view these images in large print format and in a context other than a computer screen.

The people at Jim Thompson, I ought to mention, have been consistently supportive of this work. Without them I do not think it would have been able to survive as long as it has. They are a saintly group to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

The Lifescapes Southeast Asia Film Fest, the Busan International Film Fest, the Luang Prabang Film Fest and the Cinemanila International Film Fest have also been extremely good to me and deserve much praise. So does his Wiseness over at Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal, who has generously promoted this project from the start.

As for future events, December of this year includes another exhibition, this time in Jakarta, Indonesia at the Chop Shots Documentary Film Festival. There very well may be something exciting in conjunction with that, which I'll keep you all abreast of.

In the meantime, thanks for all the visits and page views, the supportive comments and fan mail. Check back from time to time to see if anything new is in the works. Send in your own photos of stand-alone theaters in Southeast Asia if you feel so inspired. Or feel free to drop me a note: It would be great to hear from you!


Sunday, August 19, 2012

A day in the life of a projectionist

The life of the projectionist is one of silent toil. His work is carried out in stuffy quarters, beside noisy machines, usually alone, yet it's the basis of mass entertainment. He is like a conductor in that sense, a disc jockey, only without the notoriety that comes with being seen or heard. As an occupation, the projectionist is the faceless link in the movie industry supply chain. A critical link, no doubt, but one which is fast losing its prestige, if not its place in the industry.

Amnuay is a veteran projectionist. A true old hand. He got his start as the projectionist at the Sri Surin Theater in neighboring Surin province before moving to the Sisaket Rama in the provincial capital. Both theaters are now out of business. A decade has gone by since he got his third gig as projectionist at the Thai Rama here in Uthumphon Pisai. Notwithstanding a miracle, there won't be another chance to practice his craft should this gig expire. Fortunately, the Thai Rama sustains, if for no other reason than its owner enjoys running it. A bastion of family entertainment in small town Isan. The owner's rock bottom entrance fee of 20 baht is the lowest in the country, making the big screen accessible for even the most pecuniary. In the second decade of the 21st century, an active stand-alone theater in rural Thailand is a rare occurrence.  

Amnuay opens the lamphouse of his projector, revealing the xenon bulb. 

Amnuay mans a clunky, two-reel changeover projection system that could be in a museum. It's at least as old as the theater itself, which dates to 1977. In the working life of projection equipment, that's grandfatherly. Only with a lot of extra tweaking and coddling are these machines able to perform.

A cacophony of motors sets an industrial mood in the projection room. Antiquated projectors require hawkish attention. At times they caused the on-screen picture to shake, the result of a loose imaging lens. The audio system failed for a moment, too, leaving the audience of 20 or so in unintended silence. The amount of attention required just to ensure a steady picture, an even light source, is praiseworthy. This is no mindless task. Tedious, yes, but skilled no less. 

When one reel has nearly finished, Amnuay switches on the other projector. The so-called "changeover" system staying true to its name. The expired reel is then removed and taken to an adjacent room where it's rewound by hand.

Split view

Rewinding by hand

The rewinding bit seems to have a meditative quality. In the minute or two it takes Amnuay to complete a reel he seems lost in thought, watching as the film shrinks from one reel only to grow, correspondingly, into a tightly wound circle on the other. Occasionally he glances out the wall opening towards the distant screen, checking that the film is playing smoothly in his absence.

Above the wall opening hang portraits of the King and Queen. Most businesses in Thailand keep images of royalty prominently displayed. In this day and age, to not is to rouse suspicions. The portraits on display in the Thai Rama are inscribed with blessings of good luck and prosperity. They've presided over this room since the beginning.  

Amnuay pauses, staring blankly into existential nothingness as the movie plays on in the background.

While the projectors hum away, clamorous in their melody, Amnuay takes a moment to read the newspaper. Moments like these mark the completion of a reel cycle. Several minutes pass this way before he returns to the machine to adjust its components. It takes about 5 or 6 reels to complete a typical feature film.

A smoke break provides Amnuay a moment to take in the movie. 

Another solitary moment for Amnuay, his machines clanking away in the background. It was not too long ago, he recalled, when the theater was full on a regular basis. The Thai Rama had an original seating capacity of one-thousand. Now only 200 seats remain, the rest sold off as scrap. 

The projectors in this steamy little room are aged artifacts. When they go, so will the theater. Projectionists like Amnuay, operators of these aged artifacts, are like members of a fading guild. They are a breed of their own. To see the occupation at this particular point is to watch occupational Darwinism unfold before your very eyes. A sterile silence awaits this room where dreams have been projected twice a day since 1977.  

Amnuay shrugs and cracks a smile before loading another reel.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Film director from Cambodia's "Golden Age" passes

The stunted but reviving world of Cambodia cinema lost one of its legendary directors last weekend in Phnom Penh. Yvon Hem was a much lauded movie director in Cambodia during the country's most prolific period of cinema production - the late 1950's through the early 1970's. He is credited with helping develop the Cambodian film scene from virtually nothing to a thriving industry. Hem was 75 years old.

The Phnom Penh Post has the full story here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Thai Rama - Uthumphon Pisai, Sisaket, Thailand

Like countless little towns dotting the Thai countryside, Uthumphon Pisai comes across as a functioning time capsule. Core sections of such towns are much as they were when they developed in the mid-20th century, spurred towards growth by market-sized agricultural yields from Green Revolution technologies. 

Town fresh markets, still a staple of community life, are now concrete instead of wood framed, as are most commercial structures. Those wooden structures that do survive often have an endearing sag to them, like the dear old aunties and uncles who so often call them home. They belong to a visibly different era.

It's the town outskirts where the 21st century makes its presence known. Inter-province highways on town outskirts are lined with the same kinds of big-box retailers that led small town America to a needlessly early grave.The central business community is challenged by the hyper-markets on town's edge. 

Generally speaking, local movie theaters are in a similar, if not more dire position. Closed or altogether demolished, virtual unknowns to the new generation of would-be movie-goers. 

But in Uthumphon Pisai, the Thai Rama has managed to cling to life through simple economy: at 20 baht, it's the lowest priced movie ticket in all of Thailand.

The Thai Rama Theater

Like most stand-alone theatres in small Thai towns, the Thai Rama was built near the heart of the community, perfect for a largely pedestrian population.

When it opened in 1977, much of the countryside had yet to be linked to the electricity grid. The local cinema, then powered by diesel generator, topped the list of places to go for entertainment. That has all changed over the last two decades.

In Uthumphon Pisai, however, for less than the price of a bowl of noodles, you can still experience the joys of the silver screen the old-fashioned way. A family of five, living off a single minimum wage, can comfortably enjoy this luxury at such a price.

But it gets even better than that: In a display of her affection for the business, the Thai Rama's owner-operator - a middle-aged woman who inherited the theatre from her late parents - outdid her own rock-bottom price.

"Buy tickets for next week's movie today and pay only Bt10," she announced recently as a group of patrons filed through the door.

Her explanation as to why so low: "We're an old theatre, without air-conditioning, and in need of a paint job." Clearly this is a theatre owner for whom community spirit trumps profits.

Wooden doors and sign for 20 baht movie tickets, the cheapest in Thailand.

Pleasantly absent at this astonishingly low price are the droves of rambunctious teens that must be negotiated at the multiplex in the shopping mall. Thai Rama attendees are there for the sole purpose of watching a movie, not as an afterthought on a shopping spree.

Thirty minutes worth of onscreen advertisements prior to the show is likewise not an issue at the Thai Rama, in contrast to the big-name multiplexes. Instead, the erstwhile norm of a few previews and the cinematic homage to the King is all one sees.

High school students make memories in front of the old Thai Rama.

Verandah view

Monarchical marketing before the start of the film

Admittedly, for Bt20 - six times below the national average for a movie - there are some noticeable technical omissions. For one, there is no frigid air-conditioning as is common at the multiplexes. In fact, the Thai Rama has managed to cool its patrons for 35 years with nothing more than industrial-sized wall fans.

Nor will you find fancy seats with cup-holder armrests that can be raised to get closer to a date. The seats at the Thai Rama are metal framed, deep-pocketed and - though sufficiently comfortable -perform no function other than providing a place to sit, one person at a time.


But even if the rickety, two-reel projectors caused the picture to shake at times, and the antiquated sound system botched the audio during a few scenes, the overall movie-watching experience is pure joy. Maybe it is precisely this rustic imperfection, this down-home sense of community, that's so comforting in an age of superficial gloss and hyper-consumption.

Either way, at Bt20 a pop, it's hard to complain.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There goes Cinema Row

Dismaying but predictable news has reached me that a number of theaters along Yangon's colorful "Cinema Row" are in the process of being torn down. The strip of theaters along the south side of Bogyoke Aung San Road, between Sule Pagoda and Pansodan roads in the former capital, has served as the city's entertainment center for more than 5 decades. Hence the nickname. 

Several of the theaters date back to as early as the 1920's.

The six movie theaters of Cinema Row represent the densest agglomeration of operating stand-alone movie theaters in Southeast Asia, if not the entire Far East. Aside from their entertainment function, they support an informal street economy comprised of hundreds of vendors, hawkers and crafts people of various types who earn a living from selling to movie patrons and other passersby. That buoyant street life will also be pushed aside to make way for the homogenous glass tower hotels said to be replacing Cinema Row. 

Below is collection of photo depicting the architecture and social life of Cinema Row taken in June 2010 and January 2011. They are in no particular order. If you want to read more about the Waziya, King, Thwin, Hsoo Htoo Pan, Myoma and Shwe Gon cinemas - the cinemas of Cinema Row - just click on their names.

If anybody has further details of developments going on there, please send an e-mail to

Looking west along Cinema Row from the Pansodan Bridge. 

Cinema Row with the Thwin Cinema in the foreground

The King Cinema

The Waziya Cinema

The Hsoo Htoo Pan Ciname

The Thwin Cinema

Hsoo Htoo Pan by night

In and out of the Shwe Gon

The children of street vendors

Loafing at the Hsoo Htoo Pan

Thwin's ticket window

Taking shelter under the Waziya's portico

Posters at the King Cinema

Longyi Strut

Waziya usher

Facade of the King

 Poster display beside the King Cinema

General street life on Cinema Row

Under the portico of the Hsoo Htoo Pan

Shwe Gon passersby 

The Thwin by night

In the realm of politics, change could not come fast enough for Burma. Too much too fast economic growth, however, will inevitably leave the country a gutted shell of itself. The loss of Cinema Row, long a defining characteristic of Yangon, is testament to that.

As a means of preempting an architectural apocalypse, the Association of Myanmar Architects has recently published a book advocating for the preservation of 30 significant buildings across Yangon. To my knowledge none of the listed structures are movie theaters. Regrettably, in Southeast Asia movie theaters are seldom considered worthy of preservation, despite the architectural and social value they embody. Indeed, there will be plenty of hands applauding the demolition of Cinema Row because of the perception of it being "dirty" or "out of date."

But make no mistake about it: the loss of Cinema Row will forever alter the face of Yangon. And probably not for the better.