Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Charoen Rath Theater - Korat, Thailand

While still in mourning over the loss of the Siam Theater, it's about time to move on. Heart-wrenching images of its charred lobby will only weigh on morale if left to hang in the open indefinitely. Anyway, a future blight is in need of addressing. In the wake of the Siam Theater tragedy talk is once again stirring of a "Master Plan" to raze all of Siam Square and replace it with a shopping mall in the next few years. Presumably that means that Lido and Scala will be obliterated along the way, forever slamming the door on Bangkok's stand-alone movie theater culture.

The "Master Plan" was conceived by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, essentially the office of urban planning, and has been on the drawing board for some time. In my interview with Apex's managing director last May she hinted at this bleak future. Hopefully the plan will be reconsidered.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on the Charoen Rath Theater - a 1950's gem in the center of Korat.

Movies haven't screened at the Charoen Rath for a decade or more, and it's since been taken over by a motorcycle dealership, but the facade is still largely intact, including the free standing letters on the roof. Most of the surrounding neighborhood is likewise well preserved, providing a living time capsule of post-Second World War Korat. Pedestrian friendly and loaded with architectural eye candy, this neighborhood - just north of the Lady Mo monument - deserves a stroll if you're in the vicinity.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

After the riot

The following contains graphic images of the Siam Theater, postmortem. Viewer discretion is advised.

All photos courtesy of Liam Morgan

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Last time at the Siam

Here are a few photos of the Siam Theater I took in October of last year.
"Kafoo: Waiting for Happiness" was playing there at the time: a Japanese romance, the name of which said enough for me to steer clear. Little did I know that I'd just opted out of my last chance to watch a movie in the Siam, only to dip below my standards and catch one at SF World Cinema, atop Central World Plaza instead. The movie, Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant," turned out to be the best movie I saw on the big screen all last year. But the venue couldn't hold a candle to the Siam Theater.

Yesterday, May 19th, 2010, both the Siam Theater and Central World Plaza shopping mall were torched by "Red Shirt" protesters, following a violent crackdown by the Thai military. The Siam Theater was one of the last great stand-alone theaters in Thailand.

Wise Kwai has dedicated an entire post to it over on his Bangkok Cinema Scene site. You can find further write-ups at the Bangkok Post and Nation web-sites, as well.

Looking straight across from the steps of the Sky Train which stands in front of the Siam Theater.

Street level

Stainless steel poster display case that stood in front of the Siam Theater

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Casualty of War

There are too many horrors going on across Bangkok to mention them all right now. Riots are ensuing, blood is spilling and buildings have been set ablaze. Among those buildings lost to fire is the Siam Theater. It was located basically at the heart of the Red Shirt protest site. This is a huge loss for movie theater enthusiasts and Bangkok film fans. A classic venue that should not have gone out the way that it did. It will be sorely missed.

Siam Theater

Opened December 15th, 1966,
First movie: "Battle of the Bulge" - Directed by Ken Annankin

Closed due to fire May 19th, 2010.
Final movie: "Iron Man 2" - Directed by Jon Favreau

Very, very sad loss

Upper lobby of the Siam, no more

Ticket stub from my last time watching a movie at the Siam Theater, May 16th, 2009


The above photos were taken in 2009

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Gone hunting

Dear Readers,

It is with deepest regrets that I announce that the SEA Movie Theater Project will be in a state of dormancy for a while; probably for upwards of a month. Not being able to post for such a prolonged period will be difficult for me, I assure you, especially as the theater tally grows to new, ever more exciting heights in the meantime. That's right folks, the hiatus in posting is not without just cause. Once again my Acme-brand movie theater detector is picking up strong signals from the Isan region of Thailand. Live ones, at that! In fact, the gist of this project from here on out will be to extol the virtues of living theaters, rather than archive the deceased, ghoulishly provocative though the latter may be; because as a matter of contemporary culture, functioning theaters offer a far better picture of it than the abandoned ones do. Having said that, soon after Isan's sojourn the first leg of an exploratory mission will be made to a land where functioning stand-alone theaters are in abundance. So I implore you, in lieu of the long silence to come, to not forget about the SEA Movie Theater Project. A colorful future awaits it.

In the meantime, your continued contributions are encouraged. Anybody with movie theater photos from Southeast Asia who would like to submit them for publication on this site is more than welcome to do so. Queries and submissions can be sent to:

The Projectionist

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The CTS Theater - Wangsaphung, Loei, Thailand

In the center of Loei province, between rolling hills of patchy forest, sits the little market town of Wangsaphung. The town feels sedated under the hot season sky, even after a freak two-day spell of cool air blew in from the east. A typhoon over the South China Sea, say the papers.

Loei is an in-between province: neither completely of Isan, or the North, yet straddling the two fairly evenly. A few lifetimes ago, it was tied in to Luang Prabang's trading network, an affiliation which gives it the feel of a Lao principality as much as it does anything Thai - at least when you get down to the root of it. But I didn't come to Wangsaphung, or Loei in general to dissect its cultural past, riveting as it may be. It was the pop-cultural present that lured me in - functioning-stand-alone-movie-theater style.

A movie poster is tacked to a telephone pole at Wangsaphung's main intersection. Everybody in town has to cross that intersection at some point, so on its own minute scale, it's as good as having a 20 foot billboard at Times Square. The Hughes Brothers' latest fiasco, "The Book of Eli" is advertised as having a 4 day run.

Wangsaphung, 42130

The # 1 reason to visit Wangsaphung!

There he is! The man behind the magic, as well as the ticket counter. The visionary of central Loei. He's second to none! Number one! Ladies and gentlemen, Wangsaphung's very own ring master-cum-movie theater proprietor: muh..muh..muh..muh..muh..muh..Mr. Chern Kasemboon: founder, owner and operator of Wangsaphung's Chern Theater Systems (CTS Theater)

Mr. Chern, native son of Wangsaphung, was awakened to the joys of film young, stamped on his conscience to never fade away.

"There were two old wooden theaters here when I was a kid," recounted the theater owner. "Both of them were like second homes to me. Running my own was a goal I kept in mind all my life until the time was right for me to act on it."

In 1999, after many years of managing a branch of Siam Commercial Bank in Loei City, Mr. Chern invested 7 and a half million baht in his childhood fantasy. The CTS Theater was the result, a humble yet welcome addition to a little town where such luxury has long been absent.

The man literally laughed when I asked him how business was: "It's like this," he started. "I've got a handful of regulars in town who support me because they understand the difference between watching a bootleg DVD at home and watching a movie projected onto a screen from 35 millimeter film. Loyalists like that turn out for every movie that comes through. Once in a while we'll get a big movie that people are really interested in, which might draw 20 people or so to a single show. I'm not getting rich doing this. I've got one employee who runs the projector and a cleaning lady who wipes the place down every day. After paying them off and splitting the revenue with the distributors, I just cover my costs. But I'm not going anywhere. This is what I do."

As our conversation went on, it became clear that the profit motive was never part of Mr. Chern's agenda for building his theater, only that the people of his home town should profit culturally from it.

The projectionist hanging out in the lobby before show time

Newspaper movie sections serve as coming attraction posters in the lobby of the CTS Theater

Happy family

Lobby life

A grand total of four turned out for the 12:30 screening of the "Book of Eli." It was a Sunday. Three of the patrons came together - a young married couple and their young son. It dawned on me, while loafing in the lobby like a hairy apparition, how unusual of an experience this kid was getting by going to the movies. In much of Thailand, particularly in rural areas and small towns, movie theaters are a technology of the past. The collective act of movie-going is not an event many young people are going to be familiar with, trumped, instead, by the internet and other more personalized forms of media. But that could be changing in the coming years.

On their web-site, Major Cineplex Group, the country's leading theater operator, has proclaimed that the Thai population is "underscreened" at the national level, leaving room for expanded movie exhibition services. That sounds about right to me, and it'll be a plus for smaller towns and cities to get new theaters where there currently are none. The down side of that is you know who will be leading the charge, spreading their corporate image and leaving a trail of sameness along the way; a sameness which, it should be noted, everybody seems to be happy with. Won't more Chern Kasemboons of the world please stand up?

A family of three waits for the show to start

Oscillating fans supplement the A/C in the auditorium.

In true movie fan fashion, once it was clear that no more customers were showing up, Mr. Chern joined the rest of us in the auditorium to watch the film.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Amarin Revisited - Loei, Thailand

It had been a full year since last I set foot in Loei, ample time for the cold heart of economy to wreak havoc on an aging picture house. Loei City's blue-hued dream factory - ye olde Amarin Theater - became a source of regret for your dedicated narrator, being one of the few functioning stand-alones that I neglected to catch a movie in when I had the chance. It's a stickler of a policy, I admit, but one I feel strangely committed to all the same; even on a few occasions when my own tolerance threshold was knowingly put to the test. Compulsion makes me enter! Compulsion, plain and simple.

The Amarin Theater by day

The Amarin, thankfully, never sank to such abysmal depths, so was never any cause for concern. But the looming chance that it might simply go kaputsky; out of business; relegated to memory and then rubble piles or some other grim fate, made its patronage a priority in my book. Somebody's abandoned dream, crumbling, cinderblock by concrete cinderblock, into an urban fabric that's steadily on the decline.

The Amarin by night, a beacon of film

Dystopian bloggers aside, the world isn't always as cruel as it's cracked up to be. After all, the Amarin Theater is still open for business: Loei's cultural aorta, its cinematic ventricle, a beacon of something to do in an otherwise run-of-the-mill little town.

A silent lobby...

...waiting for movie fans..

...before the start of the film.

At 10 minutes before the 8PM start of "Confuscius," starring Chow Yun Fat, the owner of the Amarin Theater, Phanida, holds out hope that at least a few of the Loei faithful will find the time and interest to take in a movie. "Business is not good," she admitted, seated behind the ticket window glass. "Every now and then we have a decent day, but not when a Chinese movie is showing. Chinese productions don't really have the same drawing power that they used to."

I waited and waited, hoping to document a theater lobby abuzz with action. I mean, come on! Who wouldn't be intrigued by the latest in state-sponsored film propaganda from China? And isn't Chow Yun Fat still the King of Cool twenty years after being one of the top box-office draws across Asia? Apparently not.

The ticket taker and Isan movie theater aficionado. We spoke for a half hour about old movies and movie theaters. He used to work for an Isan-based movie distribution company and recalls every theater in every province of the region. A kindred spirit through and through.

A man decides whether or not to watch "Confucius" at the Amarin Theater.

To watch or not to watch?

The exchange

Phanida, the owner of the Amarin Theater, behind the ticket window.

It was a slow night at the Amarin's box-office, with a turn-out of less than a dozen, myself included. Phanida and the other theater staff were warm and accommodating, nonetheless, welcoming the photo session and happy to talk movies and the theater business in general.

Dating only to 1977, the Amarin was the second movie theater venture undertaken by Phanida's family. An elder sibling built the now-closed Peth Rama back in the late 1960's. When questioned about the Amarin's future in the face of paltry ticket sales, Phanida smiled, playfully balled up a fist and waving it in the air exclaimed "we're fighting on!"


Sunday, May 2, 2010

The ones who make it happen: a May Day special

Once again, planet Earth has done its orbital duty, spinning us around to that annual celebration of hard working people the world over - May Day. In honor of this May Day, or International Labor Day, or whatever you choose to call it depending on where you're from, the SEA Theater Project is posting and re-posting photos of all the movie theater employees met during the last year. Often overlooked or behind the scenes, these are the people who make watching films on the big screen a reality. From ticket sellers to projectionists, sign painters to general managers, their labor allows us to enjoy our leisure. Chances are, while you're out taking in a movie over this extended Labor Day weekend, they're toiling away so it can happen.

Ticket seller/general manager at the BMC Daokhanong Cinema, Mr. Somsak

Ticket seller/general manager of the now-demolished Asia Rama - Mr. Narong

Ticket seller/projectionist at the Chinatown Rama - a "cruising" theater.

Ticket seller at the Chalerm P. Theater

Ticket seller at the Det Udom Mini Theater

Concessionaire at the BMC Daokhanong Cinema

Tickets and concessions at the Scala

Nid, the ticket taker at the now-destroyed Mongkol Rama

Nui, the ticket taker at the Chalerm P. Theater

Wearing the brown shirt, sitting in the background is the ticket taker at the Asia Rama (now destroyed). Sitting to his right is a film distributor for Nakorn Luang Distribution

Ticket taker/usher at the Amarin Theater in Loei.

Ticket takers from the Toan Thang Cinema in Saigon - that's Thuy on the right.

The projectionist at the Mongkol Rama

The projectionist at the Pyramid Theater in Ban Phai, Khon Kaen

Mr. Anisek, the film distributor working for Nakorn Laung Distribution, counting theater patrons at the Mongkol Rama.

Noppadol Rattanaboonsin, general manager at the porn-showing Hawaii Theater

The caretaker at Pak Chong's Chalerm P. Theater, painting over an old movie poster.

Mr. Somboon, the billboard painter working for the Coliseum theater circuit, poses next to his latest work.