Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Vanishing Point" marks starting point

If I had to guess which of Bangkok's remaining handful of porn theaters would play host to a proper movie premiere, I wouldn't have guessed the Laem Thong. Not in a million years. Back in 2009, during my lone trip to the Laem Thong, the experience I had there left me with a strong impression, one that ultimately convinced me that I would stop researching porn theaters.

The Laem Thong Theater, not quite a "lighthouse of culture."

It was a crisp December morning. The Laem Thong Theater stood proudly under the warm Bangkok sun; a lighthouse of culture buried deep in the labyrinthine metropolis.

In the theater's open air lobby, regaled in its fading 1970's decor, lounged a half dozen men all radiating destitution. Blood shot, insomniac eyes, shifting suspiciously, or starring blankly into unseen corners of despair betrayed their vice.

So much for the "lighthouse of culture." If this jilted group was any indicator, the Laem Thong Theater was Skid Row's living room. A place where hardcore addiction met abject poverty in the anonymous darkness of a picture hall. The goings on inside, I determined then and there, were best left undiscovered.

The lobby of the Laem Thong in 2009

My inquiries on that bright December morning came to a hard stop at the Laem Thong's front door, with no intentions of ever returning again. Anyway, it seemed all but guaranteed that the Laem Thong, like just about every other forlorn stand-alone theater in Thailand, would have a date with a backhoe in the years to come. Having the necessary documentation under my belt, there seemed little reason to ever visit again.

Blade signage - a rarity among Thai theaters - on the Laem Thong.

Fast forward six years. By some strange twist of fate - be it a slow rise in property value, or an owner who simply refuses to sell - the Laem Thong Theater is still standing. Skid Row's living room, alive and well half way into the twenty-teens.

In the six years since my initial survey, Thailand's dwindling number of stand-alone movie theaters have ever so slightly begun to creep into the collective national psyche. In some circles they have become objects of interest, if not for the nostalgia they invoke, then, perhaps, for some potential future use yet to be realized. The "what could be" if only there was a road map for how to sustainably reuse them.

Enter October 16th, 2015. Growing interest has at last led to action. A first step towards reclamation has taken place. No longer do Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters belong exclusive to the past. A theoretical future, in some limited capacity, seems to be on the horizon.

And so it was, this past October 16th. For what might very well be the first time in Thai history, a derelict porn theater temporarily reverted to its cinematic glory days. Director Jakrawal Nilthamrong, a rising star in Thailand's independent film scene, graced the screen of the Laem Thong Theater for the Thai premiere of his latest film, "Vanising Point."

For the first time in many years the name of a film graces the Laem Thong Theater's marquee.

Prepping the Laem Thong Theater for a film premiere crowd was no minor task. Years of bare minimum maintenance, combined with lax hygiene had taken a serious toll. Besides the basic issues - zero lighting on the marquee, seats with their stuffing spilling out, cracked and stained flooring, vermin - the air in the Laem Thong was so rancid that a mobile air-conditioning system had be brought in to cool and ventilate the place. Add to that the installation of a temporary sound and projection system, and the Vanishing Point premiere was indeed a major affair.

Scenes from the lobby.

Jakrawal Nilthamrong (center), director of Vanishing Point, poses for a photo with the Artistic Director of the Jim Thompson Art Center, Gridthiya Gaweewong (right). The Jim Thompson Foundation partially sponsored the event. 


Complimentary drinks at the concession stand.

Good times in a dank place

Auditorium shots while the movie was screening.

Part of the decision to use a run-down old porn theater for the premiere of Vanishing Point had as much to do with the plot of the film as it did as it did with any notion of reviving a dying movie theater. In Wise Kwai's Vanishing Point review, the film critic notes that "There's a sleazy 1970's vibe,"

" aesthetic that Jakrawal highlighted in choosing a cinema from that era as the venue for its debut in Bangkok. This business of life can be a dirty thing, and amid the mould and grime of Klong Toey's Laem Thong Theatre, [Jakrawal] wanted his audience to revel in it"  (Full article here)

Nonetheless, for the first time in Thai history a barely breathing theater was used for a movie premiere. That's the kind of special event that such places should be preserved for.

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