Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Pua Rama Theater - Pua, Nan, Thailand

In 1927, the producer-director team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack came to Siam to make a film about man's constant battle with the forces of nature. With the help of local factotums and translators, they ventured into what was then perceived to be the most remote, undeveloped region of the country. The American film-making duo took a train from Bangkok up to Uttaradit and then trekked and boated it for two 2 weeks through deep jungle til they reached the wilds of Nan province. They eventually settled in what is now the district of Pua and began work on their film Chang. The film was a hit in the United States and for most American viewers, their first glimpse of this part of the world.

50 years after Chang was filmed there, Pua had its first ever brick and cement movie theater, the Pua Rama. Cooper and Shoedsack went onto to make the blockbuster King Kong in 1933.

For most of its movie showing years the Pua Rama Theater was operated by the husband and wife team of Pornsak and Surang Anugkawanit. Yet it was Surang's father - previously owner/operator of an old wooden theater in town - that built it. Pornsak and Surang's stewardship marked the 2nd consecutive generation of movie theater proprietors in the family, though the theater would not last long enough for their son to become the third.

The auditorium, much the way it was when the theater closed 10 years ago.

In the year 2003, producers for the Thai film Iron Ladies 2 scouted out the Pua Rama Theater for a scene in the movie.

This is the only old Thai theater I've come across which still has the seats. Usually they are removed and sold off. Note that these seats were made of wood.

Like most single screen theaters in Thailand that were built in the 1960's and 70's, the auditoriums were kept cool with industrial size fans that were built into the walls.

30 years ago you would have found theater patrons hanging out here in the upper lobby. Now you only find clothing hanging out to dry.

Surang and Pornsak Anugkawanit pose in what used to be the lobby of the old Pua Rama Theater. They now run a mini-mart from it. In the 1970's and early 80's the theater was regularly sold out, including standing room only. But as the story goes, by the 1990's single-screen theaters in small towns like Pua were feeling the squeeze of a bad economy, shrinking rural populations and the proliferation of home entertainment centers for the average family.

The Anugkawanit family shut down the Pua Rama Theater in 1999.
Poster for the Cooper and Schoedsack production of "Chang," which was filmed in Pua back in 1927.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Suwan Rama Theater - Chiang Khan, Loei, Thailand

The Suwan Rama Theater is the first case I've encountered where the owner sees value in his "antique" theater, even after it's days of showing films have passed. It marks a realization that, if nothing else, history does have an economic value to some.

Thanks to the preservationist resolve of the Chiang Khan community (or maybe the long-stagnant economy), the town looks much as it did one hundred years ago, with about 80 percent of the houses and commercial buildings made of old teak wood. Its antique flavor has turned Chiang Khan into a hip tourist destination. Following suit, the Suwan Rama Theater has been converted into a mini-museum of itself.

For many years, Chiang Khan's position on the Mekong River gave it an advantage in the river trade. It is the first Thai town with a port on the Mekong after the river reconnects with Thailand to form the border with Laos. That means that any product that was shipped down the Mekong from northwestern Laos would reach the Chiang Khan port before any other point on the river. Hence the growth of the town a hundred years ago. That's my own speculation, but it seems right, right?

Pictured above is the window of the sound room. This is different from a soundtrack room (see the Thepbanterng post on 4/21 for more details). As late as the early 1970's rural Thai audiences preferred movies that had to be dubbed, rather than sound films. I presume this was because the "dubbers," as they were known, could speak local dialects and thus communicate better with local audiences, rather than the central Thai dialect that was spoken in Thai sound films. Dubbers became celebrities in their own right, with the best able to play many roles in one film and accurately synthesize such variant sounds as galloping horses, sword fights, thunder and gun shots.

(More details on Thailand's "dubbers" can be found in Dome Sukwong's book A Century of Thai Cinema.)

Balcony overlooking the street. In the past, hand painted murals advertising the day's showing were hung over the railing of this balcony.

The facade and front portion of the Suwan Rama was made of wood, in defiance of a law that was passed forbidding wooden cinemas as fire hazards. The auditorium, however, was brick and cement.

The front portion, where the lobby and concessions used to be is now a restaurant/museum. The auditorium is a badminton court.

Looking towards what used to be the balcony. The Suwan Rama had a total of 700 seats.

In here they used to sell movie tickets and candy. Now they sell food and nostalgia.

16 millimeter projector and some other memorabilia. The silent films of yesteryear were almost always shot in 16 millimeter film.

An old slide projector. It was used to project advertisements from local businesses onto the big screen. Revenue from these ads covered the taxes that were levied against the films.

Old wooden seats memorialized in what used to be the lobby. While I was eating there some tourists from Bangkok posed for photos in these seats.

Movie posters, mostly from the 1980's.

Lobby card for the film "The General's Daughter."

Lobby card for the movie "Tiger of the Mountain"

An old ticket stub preserved in lamination.

This is Mr. Phayungsak, owner of the Suwan Rama restaurant/theater museum, posing in front of some old lobby cards and other bits and pieces of his theater's past. Phayungsak built the Suwan Rama Theater in 1970 and closed it in 1990 - a relatively short but sweet run as a theater proprietor. As a child, his father ran an older theater in town made of bamboo and mud, which has long been destroyed. Phayungsak told me that Grandma Yamjid, owner of the Thepbanterng Theater in Nong Khai, is his aunt; a family of theater entrepreneurs.

All in all it was pretty cool to see an old theater in Thailand that's still keeping its memory alive. When it's possible and practical, I think it's important to put some resources into preserving old structures like this. In Thailand, as in the rest of Southeast Asia and most parts of the world, these old movie theaters were often the the most socially central places around. Communities convened around them, businesses sprang up around them and their influence ran deep. I hope that theaters like this increasingly get put on the list of cultural heritage sites in Thailand, so they will be preserved and future generations will be able to learn from them.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Peth Siam Theater - Nong Khai, Thailand

It finally hit me while I was doing research in Nong Khai. A crucial event that fits perfectly with the demise of single-screen, family run movie theaters in Thailand and beyond. The majority of these old theaters in Thailand cranked out their final showings usually in the range of 10 to 12 years ago. Turn back the clock to 12 years ago and Thailand is descending into the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which rocked most of East Asia and caused many an enterprise to collapse. Credit, which was once available to cover the operational costs of many businesses, dried up. Jobs, which once paid enough wages for employees to have a bit of a disposable income, vanished. Many already hurting single-screen theaters, barely surviving the onslaught of home entertainment centers, closed up shop. The Peth Siam Theater was one of the many victims.

But years before big-shot currency and real-estate speculators plunged the economies of East and Southeast Asia into financial Hades, Nong Khai managed to support three independently owned single-screen cinemas, the Peth Siam being one of them.

Built about 40 years ago by the Suksan family, the same family that now runs the Suksan Motel in town, the Peth Siam Theater was a motion picture beackon in this bustling little city on the banks of the Mekong. It boasted of a balcony and apparently the largest screen in town.

Profile shot

Beautiful signage

After it ceased as a movie theater, the owners experimented with turning it into a badminton hall. But according to Dahm, pictured below, "Nong Khai people are lazy and don't like to exercise." The badminton hall failed.

Dahm grew up right next door to the Peth Siam Theater. His father was employed there for many years as the projectionist, and as a little boy Dahm got to see movies for free.

Ladies and gentlemen, my all time favorite free-standing movie theater sign. Imagine that diamond all lit up at night!

The Siam Diamond Theater: It lost its luster about 10 years ago, though in its heyday it most certainly shined.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The EM-Cinemax Theater - Beung Kan, Thailand

The EM-Cinemax Theater is the last operating single-screen theater in all of Nong Khai province; a living small town relic that was well worth the 2 hour bus ride from Nong Khai city to the town of Beung Kan. It is also one of the few (if not the only) unair-conditioned theaters in the entire country.

Half theater, half sauna, all joy.

Yes folks, I watched a noontime showing of Jackie Chan's latest, "The Shinjuku Indicident" in a theater that was about 33 degrees celcius (90 fahrenheit). The indutrial sized fans mounted within the walls did a great job of making a lot of noise and blowing the hot air around, but it didn't do anything for the temperature. I was really sweaty.

The other distinguishing features about the EM-Cinemax Theater is that the restrooms were only accessible from the theater auditorium, something I have never seen before. They're usually located in the lobby or foyer.

The orange and black foyer.

The sign on the rail of the second level reads Chaemchan Films. This is the film distribution company which supplies parts of Thailand's Isan region with current movies. The Chaemchan company also owns the EM-Cinemax Theater. Presumably Chaemchan Films is local to the town of Beung Gan, as a sign in front of the theater advertises that Chaemchan Films can be hired for showing movies at private events.

Concession stand and ticket booth all in one.

Showing today:The Shinjuku Incident.

Interesting to note the EM-Cinemax has 4 showings per day. That's the most for a Thai single-screen theater I've found yet. Usually there are only 2 showings (12:00 and 8:30) with the chance of an afternoon special.

Meet Nok! Nok is the concessionaire, ticket seller and ticket taker all in one. I'm reasonably sure she is the manager, as well, though she didn't say as much. She did tell me that the EM-Cinemax Theater opened in 1980 (younger than me) under the name of the Saengchay Theater.

So, if you find yourself in Nong Khai en route to Vientiane for a Laotian gettaway or a visa run, why not take a little detour to Beung Gan and check out the EM-Cinemax Theater. Tickets are only 40 baht a piece. But remember to stock up on water at the concession stand. It's HOT inside!

(On an aside, while we're making reference to Jackie Chan, there's an article in The New York Times about a recent statement that Chan made which has caused some ruckus in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Have a read.)

The Vieng Samay Theater - Vientiane, Laos

Much like the Bua Savan (previous post), the Vieng Samay Theater was once a modern movie mecca in the heart of downtown Vientiane. Like its competitor around the corner, it too screened Thai films that were distributed by Grandma Yamjid, owner of the Thepbanterng Theater in Nong Khai, Thailand (see two posts prior). For the last 10-plus years the Vieng Samay has been nothing more than a facade.

The auditorium of the Vieng Samay has been demolished, leaving only a weedy lot in its wake. But for whatever reason the facade of the theater was spared. From a preservationist standpoint, this is a partial victory. If there is no chance of rehabilitating the theater to its original condition and the costs of maintaining the majority of the structure, even if it's used for other purposes, are not feasible, then at the very least preserving the facade - it's most recognizable feature - is a good thing. With any luck the facade's value will be realized some day and it will be professionally restored. Personally, I think it's one of the more unique theater facades I've seen in this part of the world, if not anywhere.

The sign atop the Vieng Samay Theater features Lao, Chinese and Roman lettering.

Noodle vendors now occupy the space which used to be the lobby.

The old marquee hangs tattered above the entrance.

The remains of the Vieng Samay Theater are literally around the corner from the Bua Savan and there is a hotel directly to the right of it which apparently also used to be a theater. That's at least 3 movie theaters in a relatively small area. Aside from those rudimentary bits of data, I wasn't able to learn much about the Vieng Samay Theater, but it was obviously once a luxurious place to watch a movie.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hong Nang Bua Savan - Vientiane, Laos

Before the May 17th, 1975 communist victory in Laos, Grandma Yamjid (find a brief bio of her in the prior post) distributed Thai films from Nong Khai to a few of the theaters across the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. The Bua Savan Theater was one of them.

Facade, palm tree and classic free-standing sign.

After the withdrawal of US-backed forces and the collapse of the royal regime, relations between Laos and Thailand melted down and trade slowed to a trickle. Among the items no longer entering Laos included Thai and American films. In their absence Laotian cinemas began to feature films from Russia, India, Vietnam and other communist countries.

Looking towards the front door, one section of which has been kicked in.

Now a shadow of its former self, the Bua Savan Theater still stands imposingly in the heart of Vientiane, a bi-level, single screen giant of yesteryear. Unfortunately the gaping hole in the roof over the auditorium, large enough to fit a mid-sized car through, suggests it won't around too much longer.

Looking towards the street from the trash strewn lobby.

Among the garbage littering the theater grounds, a discarded bra lies limpid, perhaps hinting that the abandoned Bua Savan has found new life.

An old poster case, still containing lobby cards from past films.

Presumably the last feature the Bua Savan showed, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3". What a pathetic way to go out!

Lobby card for what I think is an Indian film, though it's Thai name translates to "Partial Heaven."

Another lobby card.

There was nobody around who could give me any details about the Bua Savan Theater when I visited it. I don't know when it was built, though I can guess it closed in the mid to late 1990's, a few years after Laos set out on a gradual return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment. A restructured economy, open to freer trade could have opened the door for an influx of cheap imported electronics, like TV's and VCR's, resulting in the shrinkage of the Lao movie theater industry and closure of the Bua Savan.

But fear not, there are newer, albeit less charming theaters in Laos these days. Vientiane has one in a shopping center and Pakse, the southern-most Lao city, has one above a bowling alley. There might even be more that I'm not aware of. But to be sure, none of the new ones can so much as hold a candle to the Bua Savan.