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.