Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Pratai Theater - Pratai, Korat, Thailand

Driving towards Pratai, the northeast corner of Korat province, brown fields of fallow paddy seem to stretch endlessly. In Isan's rural heartland, the horizon is breached only by the occasional herd of cattle and a solitary tree every few dozen meters. Some farmers have piled giant hay stacks upon their parched fields, almost as tall as the trees themselves, sparse though they be. This is a typical sight from any secondary road in Isan this time of year. Bone dry. It calls to mind the Kalahari desert more than tropical latitudes and you think to yourself that the gods really must be off their rockers.

It's not even eleven in the morning but the sun has already baked everything to a sizzle. In an instant a town appears along the road. As you roll down the concrete channel of "Main Street," the heat intensifies. It's like an oven. In spite of the heat, the townsfolk are busy tending to their various businesses - mostly goods and services related to agriculture. Pratai is a small town, but bustling all the same. When the work is done, though, what do the people here do, I comtemplate? How does one beat the heat in the town of Pratai? It would be nice to duck into a movie theater for a few hours, no doubt. Cool down under the flicker of film. Wouldn't that be a treat? But it's no longer an option. Not since the Pratai Theater shut its doors one year ago.

Plain to look at, but once a joy to be in.

Pratai Theater

Monday-Friday showing at 1:00PM and 8:00PM
Saturday and Sunday, an extra showing at 10:30 AM

Once was welcoming

Peeratach Kanarat tells his theater's story from inside the old projection room.

As a recent casualty among the stand-alone circuit, the Pratai Theater still has an aura of life when viewed from the exterior. Regrettably, that's only aesthetic. It's quite dead, cinematically. While I was milling around the theater grounds, Mr. Peeratach Kanarat came down from his office in what I would soon learn was once the theater's soundtrack room. After a brief exchange he offered a guided tour of the building, which has since been gutted of all its movie-watching accouterments.

Staying in the media entertainment industry, Peeratach now operates a local radio station from the Pratai Theater, though if he had his way he'd still be running the family gem in its original form.

"My uncle built this theater in 1982 when I was a just little kid," said the Pratai's former manager. "I practically grew up in here, working all the jobs that I possibly could until I learned the trade inside and out. When I became old enough, my uncle handed the day-to-day operations over to me."

He went on to explain that 'business was still going strong until DVD's starting growing in popularity. Then, by the time a new movie made it to Pratai, bootleggers in Taiwan and Hong Kong had already flooded the market with cheap DVD copies that my customer base could pick up on trips to the local market. We struggled on through dismal times til we just couldn't make it any more."

But the final blow to business came after new legislation regarding entertainment venue safety standards was enacted. On new years eve 2008, a fire broke out in a Bangkok night-club killing dozens of patrons. Soon after, explained Peeratach, the government passed laws requiring all entertainment venues to install state of the art sprinkler and alarm systems - a welcome addition for customer safety but also a huge expenditure for venue operators. "There was no way we could afford to make that kind of investment," he said. "It was no problem for the big guys like Major or SF, but it really hurt the little guys like us. When we heard about it, we decided to call it quits. It wasn't a business we could survive in any longer."

In its post-movie days, aside from hosting a radio station, the Pratai Theater now also hosts this man, who appeared to be living in the former ticket booth. It wasn't clear whether he has a connection to Peeratach or if he's taken up residence on his own. I didn't ask. It's likely that he has been abandoned by a local family and that Peeratach allowed him to take shelter under the theater's veranda.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Wise Kwai presents: The Udom Suk Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

To say the least, it's been a long and tiresome past 10 days, but well worth it all the same. Starting in Chiang Mai, I've zig-zagged back and forth across southern Isan, hitching a ride with a good friend on a work tour. The laptop made the trip with me this time, so I am able to post on the spot, potentially. Still, being on the road takes its toll and I find myself feeling too sluggish to conjure up a post a lot of the time. But thanks to some regular readers, I've received a few new photo submissions to pick up the slack when I'm down for the count.

Today's submission comes from the Wise Kwai, whose web-site Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal is the English language repository of movie and movie-related news from Thailand and beyond. Whether it's an in-depth review of a new Thai movie, reportage on the Thai film industry or an announcement regarding a local film fest, big or small, Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal covers it and a lot more. No joke! Check him out if you want to come up on your Thai film knowledge.

So without further ado, the Wise Kwai proudly presents his debut contribution to the SEA Movie Theater Project, The Udom Suk Theater.

I came across the Udom Suk early one morning after pulling an all-nighter at the office and then going to get fish for my cat and some breakfast. Went back near sunset recently and snapped this photo in the more favorable light.

Looks pretty typical. Busy but decrepit market, smells like rat piss. Lots of cats around. Big dead building in the middle of it all, front stoop covered with dog shit.

With the multiplexes at Imperial Samrong and Major Cineplex Bangna nearby, this one's doomed. Just waiting for the skytrain extension to Samrong to open, and then the whole market will be redeveloped into a condo.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Sisaket Rama - Sisaket, Thailad

Alleyways can be unnerving city features. They're reputed crevices of crime almost anywhere you go. The word "alley" goes well together with the word "lurk." Foul smells emanate from alleys. Rot is found down them, animal carcasses and dead humans from time to time. The narrow paths are associated with murder, main-lining heroin, diseased sex and helplessness in the face of robbery or assault. Bruce Wayne's parents were gunned down in a Gotham alley, right in front of the future weirdo's eyes. With all these unsavory ideas racing across my mind, I entered Soi Rama (theater alley), in a quiet corner of downtown Sisaket.

There's a snooker hall just beside the Sisaket Rama, where the frequent sound of phenolic resin balls banging into each other added life to this eerily silent concrete chasm. Opposite the crumbling theater sat a group of young working girls waiting for johns in front of a mildew-coated, row-house brothel. "What are you doing here, boy?" asked the eldest of the bunch. I explained my purpose in the best Lao I could muster, which went something like "Hello, I'm a nerd, I like movies and I love old movie theaters." They laughed and flirted and offered their services which I declined as other alleyway vagrants moved in to inspect the scene. Cautiously, I withdrew my trusty camera and turned my attention to the rotting behemoth looming above.

Moments later, a shout come from one of the snooker hall windows, redirecting my attention from a photo shoot around the Sisaket Rama's piss-scented perimeter. There in the barred window stood a man with a pool cue in one hand, making frantic signals with the other. First, he pointed at the theater in a rapid back and forth motion. Next, he tilted his head to the side and with his free hand, made like he was pulling a noose around his neck. After that, he ran his extended index finger horizontally across his throat, repeating the entire routine two or three times in succession until I acknowledged him. "You mean somebody died in there?" I asked, trying to appear shocked. He nodded silently.

Ignoring the mute snooker player, I returned to my study of decrepitude with the knowledge that besides being an abandoned wreck, the old Sisaket Rama is haunted, as are a good 50 percent of all habitable entities in Thailand.

Frontal overgrowth


Movie theater or mausoleum?

A peek into the lobby

"Don't believe that old fool" came a man's voice from the direction of the working girls. "Nobody ever died in there. It's just a filthy old theater with trees growing up through the floor." Next to the group of women sat a wiry middle-aged man on a knee-high plastic stool, scraping the plaque off his protruding tongue with his thumb nail. "The Sisaket Rama has been closed for years," he said. "Maybe twenty by now. And I'll tell you, it was a lousy theater from the start. The steps up to the balcony were too steep and the aisles were too narrow. So uncomfortable to watch a movie there. The guy who built it was a real idiot, if you want the truth. But there was never any kind of death in the place."

"Do you know what year it was built?" I inquired.

"Let's see," he mused aloud. "How old are you?"


"That's about how old the theater is; a few years older at the most. I was about your age when it opened and now I'm 60."

We talked briefly about the town of Sisaket, about the three or four stand-alone movie theaters that it had in the past, among other scintillating discussion topics. Today, the city's cinema scene sits on top of the Sun Heng department store, consisting of a 4-screen multiplex run by a small Isan-based theater chain called MVP. It's charmless, but it's better than no theater at all, which is the case for a number of provincial Thai capitols.

"Marquee Mark and the Rusty Bunch"

Side exit with clothes strung out to dry

Free standing letters
So theater alley turned out to be a lot less sinister than I imagined. Shady, for sure, but basically harmless, even with a clunky old camera in hand. The fact that there was still daylight probably helped a lot. I definitely wouldn't recommend going there after dark. Just to be on the safe side, I wouldn't recommend going there at all.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Det Udom Mini Theater - Det Udom, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Just over 30 kilometers south of Ubon city lies the little country town of Det Udom. Geographically speaking, the town is pretty basic, consisting of one main street running perpendicular to a feeder highway which leads to the provincial capitol. Businesses on main street cater to the surrounding farming villages, because this, my friends, is rural Isan, where if you haven't moved to the big city for wage work, you're scratching out a living from the soil. Fortunately for the Det Udom townsfolk and villagers there are movies to be watched on a big screen when the work is done, thanks to the Det Udom Mini Theater.

Up the rainbow staircase to the auditorium

In past decades, country theaters like the Det Udom Mini could be found in nearly every district of Thailand. Even prior to the advent of rural electrification, small town entrepreneurs were prone to build movie theaters and project the coveted form of entertainment via power provided by a diesel generator. Areas deemed too poor or remote to support a permanent theater were serviced by the ubiquitous traveling cinema companies, which would set up open-air movie screenings and charge customers a small fee to get in. From what I've been told, most districts in Ubon Ratchathani watched their movies the open-air way. But the people of Det Udom have long been luxuriating in a theater of their own.

Theater A

Teenage ticket queue

Ticket seller

The Det Udom Mini Theater is actually fairly new, dating only the late 80's/early 90's - the last generation of stand-alone movie theaters to be built in Thailand. According to staff and locals, it replaced an old wooden theater that occupied its ground for years prior.

Designed with the future in mind, the Det Udom Mini has two auditoriums and two screens, allowing for double the viewing fare at the same time. But only theater "A" is used regularly.

Interior action

This truck rolls around town and the surrounding villages announcing the daily film fare. Now Showing: "Who are You?"

After the movie

I was able to catch a noon showing of "Who are You...," which would have been a recommendable movie had it not been for the screwy ending. Otherwise it was a strong attempt by the Thai film industry at psychological horror, a sub-genre which gets scant attention among local producers.

As for the attending crowd, of the roughly 20 attendees there were 3 adults - a reflection of movie-going demographics nationwide. When questioned about how business has been, the Det Udom Mini's caretaker said that the theater was covering its costs. "We're not exactly raking it in," he jibed, "but considering it's now the dry season, when lots of locals leave to take up seasonal work in the big cities, we're not doing bad. Business will get better come the rainy season when everybody returns home."

There are only a handful of country theaters still operating in Thailand. Most of them are in Isan.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Ubon Pappayon Theater - Ubon Rachathani, Thailand

The blistering Isan sun is no match for a mild case of O.C.D. - and I've got the photos to prove it! Yes folks, this dispatch is coming to you as close to "live" as you're ever gonna get from me. I arrived here in Ubon Rachathani this morning, following an arduous, 1000k road trip which began in Chiang Mai on Monday. By half-past noon I had compulsively tracked down this beautiful movie theater in the heart of town. Aging, neglected and used as a warehouse, the Ubon Pappayon Theater retains an air of architectural dignity all the same.

Locals estimated the Ubon Pappayon to be between 60 and 70 years old. If this age is correct, it's possible that this is yet another movie theater built by the fascist government of Phibunsongkram - Thailand's more benign answer to Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler. During Phibunsongkram's militaristic reign - which included the World War Two years - the state undertook numerous construction projects aimed at "modernizing" Thai society. State-sponsored buildings, with sleek, fascist-inspired architecture sprang up in strategic locations across the country (see Democracy Monument in Bangkok for the most obvious example). Being the penultimate method of propagation that film was (and is), attractive movie theaters were commissioned to spread the gospel in.

A shady frame

This old sam lor driver probably watched movies at the Ubol Pappayon years ago.

Monk and movie theater

Side doors and pillars

I'm no architectural historian, so I can't tell you the specifics of the Ubol Pappayon's design, but it does have a few similar characteristics of the two other Phibunsongkram-sponsored theater's I've come across in my travels - the New Chalerm Uthai Theater, in Uthai Thani and the Thahan Bok Theater, in Lopburi. Either way, this is an architecturally significant structure and it should be preserved.

The Ubol Pappayon Theater is now privately owned and used as a warehouse. I have no idea if it was built by Phibunsongkram's government or not.

It hasn't shown a film in twenty years.

After further inquiry, including a trip to the Ubon National Museum, I've been told that the Ubon Pappayon was not built by the government. It was a private enterprise from the get go.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Las Vegas Theater - Korat, Thailand

Thailand's bucolic Northeast (Isan) is linked to the industrialized provinces of the Central region by the Mittraphap Highway, the country's first major transportation artery built to international standards. It was engineered by the US Army Corp of Engineers and largely financed by Uncle Sam himself. When the Mittraphap was completed in the late 1950's, it further opened up Isan's natural resources to Bangkok capital. Industrious entrepreneurs hedged their bets, descending upon the region's long-established, yet Lao-oriented, towns and cities en mass, hoping to cash in on the growing economic opportunities.

By the 1960's, Cold War-mongering had made its way to mainland Southeast Asia. Isan's flat, open spaces and proximity to the insurrections going on in Laos and Vietnam made it an ideal place to build some air-strips for military use. A communist movement was likewise underway in Thailand itself, so the growing military presence helped mitigate that, as well.

Ultimately, America's investment in the Mittraphap Highway had paid off. By trading in a bit of economic capital in the form of road-building, they bought themselves some political capital in the form of military bases. Now they were free to station troops and combat planes on Thai soil to fly bombing missions over Laos and Vietnam. Korat was one of four Isan cities which had an air-base used by the US Air Force during the war. The others were Ubon, Udon Thani and Nakorn Phanom.

Economically, Korat city boomed as result of the new road, and the presence of American soldiers further added to the pot. With new prosperity came new, grander movie theaters, the likes of which Northeast Thailand never had known before. At the first major junction of the Mittraphap Highway and the city of Korat, two first-class movie palaces were built, one on either side of the road. If that doesn't say something about the importance of movie theaters in the relatively recent past, then I don't know what does.

Only one of the pair is still standing today, though it's barely recognizable beneath a veil of ugly billboards. But ask any local and they'll know that under all that flotsam is the old Las Vegas Theater.

The shell of the Las Vegas sits at the most prominent intersection in Korat. It's now a low-end shopping plaza. A tiny portion of the marquee is visible beneath a tattered ad banner.Profile view

Fly-over bridge connecting the old Las Vegas Theater building with IT Plaza across the street. The Chalerm Thai Theater once was stood in place of IT Plaza

Nowadays, the Mittraphap Highway approaching downtown Korat is lined with all the national and international chain stores you can imagine, much like the highways leading to any major US city. Among them is a branch of EGV Cinemas, the country's largest theater chain, located in "The Mall" about a kilometer away from the old Las Vegas. EGV Korat is in a regional partnership with Five Star Network - the primary film distribution company in Isan (no affiliation to Bangkok-based Five-Star Productions). Five Star Network also has its very own 6-screen multiplex in the heart of the city, so at least the local guy has a good portion of the market share.

There are no longer any operating stand-alones. Go figure!

The screen once hung on the far wall


Auditorium filled with vendors, balcony outfitted with little apartments

Tiny apartments built over the balcony

1960's design event in balcony staircase
It seems pretty evident that the Las Vegas got its name as a nod to the US soldiers stationed at Korat during the war years. Or maybe the owner just had a gambling addiction; I don't know for sure, my inquiries didn't get me very far. Whatever the case, it was once grand, and together with the Chalerm Thai Theater across the street, served as a symbolic gateway into the newly-prospering city of Korat and greater Isan beyond (well, the cities of Isan prospered, but I'm not sure the same can be said about the rural areas - hence the current political tensions).

Sadly, the photos I took of the Las Vegas don't say anything about its past elegance. But after scrounging around on a web-site run by US Air Force-veteran Bob Freitag, I was able to find some pretty pictures of the Chalerm Thai Theater, which stood just opposite. Have a look below.

The Chalerm Thai Theater c. late 1960's early 1970's