Opening the old-fashioned, wooden bi-fold doors of Wik Kru Thawee Theatre is reminiscent of a scene in a mummy movie where the lead actor – perhaps an intrepid archaeologist, or explorer - pries open a long-sealed tomb. Dust stirred as the stagnant theatre air mingled with air from outside. Rays of midday sunlight beamed across the darkened chamber, only instead of revealing a gilded sarcophagus flanked by riches galore, the only treasure to be found was row after row of wooden bench seats; the thrones of movie-goers of decades passed.
The Wik Kru Thawee Theater: A cinematic gem from 1958
To be sure, the Wik Kru Thawee Theater is the Photharam equivalent to a cinematic tomb. The quaint little town in central Ratchaburi Province has only ever had one venue dedicated to the exhibition of film, and it’s been shuttered - tomb like - for 16 years. Its worn and weathered appearance blends seamlessly with the rustic two story shop houses – some approaching the century mark – that comprise a good portion of the town.
Heritage preservation is high on the collective agenda in Photharam, once a key stopover for riparian travelers going between Kanchanaburi and the Gulf of Thailand via the Mae Klong River. Unlike many of Thailand’s older river port, Photharam’s core is still characterized by narrow lanes and wooden shop houses. The gradual widening of roads to accommodate cars and trucks has little presence in much of the town’s core. Conscious of its early 20th-century aesthetic and human scale, residents have made efforts to keep it up.
Under the veranda of the Wik Kru Thawee.
Timeworn photos of the King and Queen still hang above the poster board. Judging from their look, they probably are as old as the theater itself.
Wooden bi-fold doors: a mainstay of Thai movie theaters built before the 1970's.
The Wik Kru Thawee Theater featured prominently on the list of Photharam’s preservation initiatives, a landmark institution since its grand opening in 1958. Though out of business since January, 1998 (the last movie screened there was James Cameron’s Titanic), in recent years local activists have sought ways to revive it, with the aim of using it to educate future generations about the community spirit that once accompanied movie going.
“We’ve tried to build support around the old theater,” said Mr. Weewat Suweerathanapat. “But it needs a lot of investment to bring it up to code. That’s not easy to find.”
Mr. Suweerathanapat is well acquainted with the old theater. During the 80’s and 90’s he was employed as the theatre’s art director, tasked with painting the giant movie cut-outs and posters that advertised the day’s film. His long association with Wik Kru Thawee also positions him as the theater’s de facto historian, able to detail its back story in full.
“The theatre in its present form,” he explained, “was built in place of a much older theater made entirely of wood. In the late 1950’s that original theatre was demolished, then rebuilt out of concrete and steel and given its present name.”
Wooden bench seats and a screen best suited for 16mm film.
Former poster painter at the Wik Kru Thawee, Mr. Weewat Suweerathanapat.
Signage for the Wik Kru Thawee Theater is barely visible any more. It used to be on the windows.
The name “Wik Kru Thawee,” it turns out, is a composite of the given name and occupation of the builder/owner – a local school teacher named Thawee Aekarath. Kru Thawee (Kru, in Thai, means teacher) was passionate about film and viewed the medium as good way to expand the horizons of the people of Photharam. His love for film was also inherited by his son, Thira Aekarath, who went onto to an illustrious career as a cinematographer, best known for shooting the 1970 watershed film Monrak Luk Thung.
As far as Thai stand-alone theatres go, the Wik Kru Thawee comes from an unusual era. It was built in a transitional period for Thai movie theaters, well after concrete had replaced wood as the material of choice, but just shy of the nationwide theatre boom which began in 1961. That same year the United States government started pumping millions of annual aid dollars into the Thai economy, a political countermeasure aimed at thwarting the spread of communism. That aid stimulated social change far and wide, spurring development and market integration in even the most far flung corners of the country. With growing wealth and sophistication, a taste for cinema blossomed, and for roughly the next 20 years stand-alone movie theaters were constructed in nearly every district in every province of Thailand.
The theater boom gave international movie distributors a healthy market in Thailand. Although dominated by imports from Hollywood, the international viewing fare was rounded out by films from Hong Kong, Japan, India and Europe. In fact, a glimpse of a newspaper’s movie section from the 60’s or 70’s will reveal a far more diverse range of available films than is shown in Thai cinemas today – ironic considering the far more cosmopolitan Thailand of today than of 40 years ago.
The domestic film industry also began to flourish, breaking with tradition in order to keep stride with technical innovations from abroad. Some of Thailand’s most iconic stars - the likes Mitr Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat, Sombath Metanee and Aranya Namwong - became household names during this era.