Friday, January 22, 2010

Movies in the open - Chaiyaphum, Thailand

We're coming down to the home stretch here. Most of the remaining material is all back logged stuff from a few months ago. Not having done any hunting for a few weeks now, apathy is beginning to set in. All my past work seems so distant, like a series of weird dreams. I've had them, alright. A handful of bizarre night visions where I'm in some old theater or another. There's even one where I break into the Vista Gad Suan Kaew multiplex here in Chiang Mai with the pretense of talking to the owner. "Hey Tommy!" I call out blindly "You in here, buddy? I just want to talk to you about your theater, bro. I'm a big fan. I love your theater."

A crackling PA system is switched on. A voice replies in perfect English. "Who are you? What are you doing in here? Can't you see that we're closed?"

I follow myself backwards, twisting and turning as I go, frantically scanning the darkened lobby as if being haunted by the invisible. "It's me, Tommy. The Projectionist. I take pictures of old movie theaters and....."

"So it's you, then? I know who you are! Get out of my theater! You're a menace. Don't you write anything about this place! Get out before I throw you out!"

The project has become embedded, I suppose.
Back in early December, while scouring the towns and cities of central Isan for the ghosts' of cinemas past, I had the good fortune of arriving in Chaiyaphum during a town fair. The occasion had something to do with a Chinese holiday, but I can't remember which one. Apparently it only happens once ever four or five years.

Among the attractions was a nang glang praeng, or open-air movie; the first of its kind I've ever seen. This form of entertainment was once prolific throughout Thailand, especially in the rural areas where movie theaters were scarce. Nowadays it's not easy to find outside of Isan.

Yim Yim Pappayon, an open-air movies company, displays posters in front of their truck. It's a triple header of Transformers 2, Samchuk and Buppha Ratree 3.2.

Traveling cinemas operate just as you might imagine. Think of them like traveling carnivals, or the Harlem Globetrotters, moving around from place to place bringing joy and excitement to the people. Their proprietors drive around in a truck hauling a full size movie screen, a 35 mm projector, some giant speakers and reels of film. Generally speaking, they like to find a nice open field on the outskirts of a village, erect a wall of cloth or a tarp to make an enclosure, set up the gear and charge the locals a couple of baht to get in. Ask any Thai thirty or above who comes from a small town or village about it and they will remember vividly.

An employee of Yim Yim Films sets up a projector in the middle of the street.

In the past, open-air movies were often sponsored by local pharmaceutical companies. During the intermission, a sales person would pitch various medicinal remedies and smelling salts to the crowd, introducing branded products to the rural populous. These were known as nang kai ya, or medicine sales movies.

It's less common to find traveling cinema companies showing films in urban areas. There's less space, it's harder to get permits, etc, etc. But the Chaiyaphum town fair provided just such an opportunity. A full size movie screen spanned the width of the street, and with the row houses on both sides serving as walls, it was like a real movie theater, minus chairs and a roof.

Peace and a movie

If you screen it, they will come

Curbside seating

From the ground up

A piece of cardboard keeps the clothes clean.

At its peak, there were a few hundred people sprawled out under the stars, eyes fixated on the movie screen. A cooperative of local merchants put up the money for the entire fair, including the cost of movie screenings, so it was free to watch. Sitting there cross-legged on a piece of newspaper, under the black of night's sky, watching Transformers 2 - the one and only way to view such garbage - I felt like a little kid again. Entranced in a state of childhood euphoria, with blank thoughts, still as a stone. Only the muted pain of blood circulation loss in my foot roused me. A moment later and the trance was blown away completely by a gust of saliva mixed with alcohol, as the town drunk breathed in my face. 15 minutes of his life story was enough. I returned to the solitude of my hotel room to continue my trace through sleep.


  1. My wife/lab assistant and I have been enjoying the posts and beautiful photography in your project for almost a month now, but this is our first comment. We're always captivated by the photos of the lonely theaters; so empty and melancholy. But something about the outdoor screening in this post was especially stirring... maybe from memories of old drive-in theaters and backyard slideshows of summer vacations. Thanks for the good read. Sincerely, x