Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Nakorn Non Rama - Nonthaburi, Thailand

In a city once teeming with them, Bangkok's collection of double-feature stand-alone movie theaters has been whittled down to a handful over the years. Almost gone are the days when Bangkokians could walk a few minutes to the neighborhood movie house and wile away a miserably hot afternoon with two movies for the price of one. Almost gone, that is, but not completely.

By all reasonable accounts there are no more than seven such double-feature stand-alones still in operation, and one of those is a "cruising theater" (don't go in unless your looking for an encounter with Good-times Somchai). The remaining six are spread throughout Bangkok's peripheral neighborhoods, with one as far north as Pathumthani.

Of those which have managed to weather the multiplex storm, four have yet to be featured on this archive. Make that three as of last weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project proudly presents, for the first time on the small screen, in technicolor and Cinemascope, from the rough and tumble streets of Nonthaburi, Thailand: the Nakorn Non Rama.

The Nakorn Non Rama: one of the last active stand-alones in Bangkok.

The Nakorn Non Rama is a massive physical entity. Big enough to warrant a guided tour. What you see in the above two photos is indeed the facade, however, its main purpose is less structural as it is aesthetic. The theater structure itself is recessed from the street-side building line. This facade, then, unique in its masking rather than practical function, brings a smoothness of continuity to the the streetscape which would otherwise have a gap where the Nakorn Non Rama stands.

Where the two banners hang in the above photo was designed to be a support frame for hand painted movie billboards. Sadly, this once-standard craft went extinct in Bangkok in the late 1990's, much to the detriment of peoples' eyes and imaginations. To the best of my knowledge, movie billboard painters are still employed in parts of southern Thailand as well as few towns in the eastern-central provinces. Other than that they're hard to come by. I wish I knew what the Chinese characters on the left hand side said.

An atrium with a plexiglass roof separates the structure's facade from the theater.

Step back behind the facade and into a spacious atrium area used to park motorbikes. Tuk-tuks and a few food vendors have likewise taken up residence in this area. In the background is the theater structure itself.

On the ground level of the theater is an open foyer consisting of a movie poster case and some fancy ceiling decorations.

In the photo below, the man posing in a boxing stance claims he was once the muay Thai Bantam Weight champion of the world. He now runs a boxing gym on the top level of the Nakorn Non Rama. A boxing gym on the premises of a movie theater, I can guarantee you, is a novel amalgamation.

Former Bantam weight champ turned gym owner at the Nakorn Non Rama

Along both wings of the foyer lies an elegantly curving staircase. Its ascent will lead you to the Nakorn Non Rama's plush lobby and auditorium beyond.

Sequenced neon lights around the inner marquee. "N" is for Nakorn Non.

Up on the second level, a quintet of open arches allows natural light to illuminate the lobby. Down below, beyond the atrium, the age of the combustion engine is reduced to a distant hum. Feel free to plop down on a bench and light up a smoke while you wait for the film reel to role.

Resident cat naps beside the poster case. In the background the cinema beckons.

This gentleman has been tearing tickets at the Nakorn Non Rama for over 20 years.

Lobby lounging

Ticket booth

The banner above the ticket booth reads: "This theater has surveillance equipment for catching people taking illegal video and other infractions. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

The Nakorn Non Rama: after 29 years in business, still a destination for dates.

Sign at the ticket window reads: "Please count your change." Would Major or SF ever be so considerate?

Side wing along the auditorium

These mugs are banned from entering

Despite my best efforts, auditorium photographs were strictly forbidden - a shame considering the sheer size and decorative aspects of the place. Nobody knew for certain, but a few staff members estimated the theater at 800 to 1000 seats. I'd have liked to take a nice, long exposure shot using a tripod, but the manager wouldn't budge. Anyway, this should be more impetus for you to go check it out on your own.

Two young patrons chatting over snacks in the lobby.

Signage and symbolism

Cut-out letters and film reels mounted on the theater's cornice.

The era of the stand-alone movie theater in Thailand tapered off in mid to late 1980's. By the 1990's, department stores old and new were being outfitted with their own theaters, as going to the movies somehow got confused with going shopping. By the turn of the century the bulk of Thai movie-goers had capitulated to the multiplex. Stand-alone theaters, be they double-feature, first-run or otherwise began to close en mass. Today the movie exhibition market is on the verge of being cornered by two huge conglomerates and their branded multiplex chains. Glorified mediocrity at its most virulent. But in the face of such adversity, the Nakorn Non Rama stands firm. Reasonable ticket prices, a stay-all-day policy and a down home spirit are enough endowments to keep the old theater comfortably in the black. Hopefully it can continue to do so well into the future.

If you live in the Bangkok area, do yourself a favor and go spend an afternoon at the Nakorn Non Rama. Hang out in the open-air lobby for a while. Take a breather there between films. You'll be seeing much more than a movie, I guarantee you that. The theater is a 10 minute walk straight up the road from the Nonthaburi port. If you want to know what's showing there before hand, check out this web-site.

The Nakorn Non Rama was built in 1982, a later addition to Thailand's stand-alone theater circuit.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Nonthaburi Rama - Nonthaburi, Thailand

For the past 6 months, the cinema halls of Myanmar have hogged the spotlight here on the SEA Movie Theater Project. Rightfully so, considering just how great they are! But Thai movie theaters - lest we forget - are also great, even if most of the stand-alone beauties have been consigned to history. This past weekend I rekindled my love for this work in Thailand, venturing out into the field for the first time in nearly a year.

This latest expedition took me from the heart of Bangkok, up the Chao Phraya River, to the express boat's northern terminus at the Nonthaburi port. Although Nonthaburi, for all practical purposes, has been completely absorbed by greater Bangkok, it still maintains a few cultural distinctions of its own. Chief among them is a centuries old Mon community of whom many members continue to speak the mother tongue. Seeing this ethno-linguistic tradition surviving through the generations, against all odds and the pressures of assimilation was a pleasant surprise, indeed. Survival, regrettably, was not in the cards for Nonthaburi's original high-standard movie theater - the Nonthaburi Rama.

The Nonthaburi Rama: Nonthaburi's cinematic relic.

No exact year of construction can be pinned to this one, but it roughly dates from the early to mid 1970's. This design was not unique to the Nonthaburi Rama, however. Check a few of these older posts to see similar designs, possibly erected by the same builder and/or architect. Otherwise perhaps it was just the trend of the day among theater builders.

In its current condition, the Nonthaburi Rama may look a bit uninviting, but there are good reasons for that. First and foremost, nobody wants to make cosmetic investments to a parking lot - the building's current function. But more to the point, a few key architectural details are missing. For instance, the free-standing letters once mounted above the facade, prominently displaying the theater's good name across the neighborhood, have been removed. As has other lettering which appears to have been bolted to the cornice. Most importantly, back in the theater's heyday, the massive metal grill comprising the bulk of the facade would have displayed enormous hand painted movie hoardings, adding an explosion of color to this busy streetscape. But left unadorned, the place takes on the appearance of a hulking ruin.

Ruins, however, are important, too.

A few local merchants gave me the low down on ye old departed. All seemed to agree that it was the first theater in the area equipped with the modern technologies of surround sound, climate control and reclining seats. Capacity crowds would drift in from the streets all day and night, they recalled. Some came to be air-conditioned, others to be entertained, or simply rest under the glow of the screen. A place for one and all.

By the end of it's days, it had developed into a "cruising theater;" that is, an all male hook-up spot.

A more in-depth history of the theater was hard to get. None of yesteryear's big-three movie theater circuits (Co Brothers, Apex or Hollywood) seem to have owned it, though it could have belonged to one of Bangkok's smaller movie theater magnates.

If you look closely in the above photo you will see a bit of River Plaza Center along the right edge of the photo. That's where Major Cineplex, Thailand's leader in overpriced film exhibition, has its Nonthaburi branch.

Drive-in movie theater, of sorts.

The remains of the Nonthaburi Rama can be found on Phibulsongram Road in the heart of the town its named after.

(Many thanks to DJP for an extra dose of photographic inspiration among other critical bits)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Sandar Myaint Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

In a country where the majority of old movie houses were built with pride and high craftsmanship, the Sandar Myaint Cinema calls to mind a minimum security prison. All it needs is a chain link fence with barbed wire on the top and it fits the bill to a tee. No awards for architectural design are going out to this one, that's for sure.

It's worth mentioning, however, that the theater ceased showing movies a number of years ago. Now it serves as a warehouse for non-perishables. Its stark appearance probably has something to do with that. Moreover, it's possible that in its hey day the Sandar Myaint boasted of cosmetic ornamentation that has since been removed for safety reasons, painted over, or simply left to fade in the sun. That is to say, don't let its beastly present overshadow a potentially illustrious past. Sure enough, there is one tell-tale sign indicating that there's more than meets the eye.

Baby blue never looked so menacing as it does on the Sandar Myaint Cinema

Green on blue

One of the Sandar Myaint's entrances is equipped with this tell-tale gate, featuring a pattern of A's and 1's repeated over and over. If my conjecture is correct, this represents the A-1 Film Company, one of Myanmar's most prolific movie studios of yesteryear. This family-owned and operated company produced many of Burma's most beloved films of decades passed, helping to grow the Burmese film industry into one of the most advanced in Southeast Asia. But like almost everything which was once first-rate in the country, years of hardship under an oppressive ruling regime has forced the A-1 studio out of business and led to one of the most negligible national film industries anywhere.

For an extreme - if not telling - example of how the present-day film industry in Myanmar has fallen from grace, watch the recently released documentary "This Prison Where I Live." It tells the story of Zarganar, Myanmar's top comedian, director and movie star, who is now languishing in jail under a 59-year sentence. This is a poignant documentary, with an important agenda, yet brimming with moments of hilarity so representative of the man it's about. Highly recommended!

Ticket window stills

Hand made switch board in the ticket window.

Flaking paint on the balcony staircase.

As if the Sandar Myaint lives on as a cinema, a vendor selling pop-corn does business beneath the awning. Ice cream is available as well.

Myanmar style signage.

Whether or not the Sandar Myaint was once owned by the A-1 Film Co. is not known, though the A's and 1's welded into the front gate certainly give that impression. This is a bit of data I hope to have answered in the future, along with much more about Myanmar's once prestigious movie studios. Currently there is a dearth of available literature on the subject.

To see the Sandar Myaint with your own eyes, head out to the intersection of Pyay Road and Than Street, in Yangon's Hlaing neighborhood.

Sandar Myaint translates to "Abode of the Moon."

There's no available data as to when it was constructed.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Thida Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

A blast of color towers above as you approach the Thida Cinema. If it's not clear at this point that you're about to temporarily disengage from reality then you must be looking at the ground, or else have no intentions of going to the movies. Only a blind person could miss the Thida; beauty among beasts; the man-made Wonder of Upper Kyeemyin Daing Road.

A boxy facade brought to life by multicolored patterning - in the Thida's case, achieved through the use of a tile mosaic - seems to have been a hallmark style of Burmese theater architecture in the 1950's. This is the fifth movie theater I've encountered with these characteristics that was built during the independence era. Have a look at the previous post featuring the Nay Pyi Daw and Shae Saung cinemas for visual comparisons. Similarly, I came across a photo of another Yangon theater, since demolished, which employed this kind of design. There's another functioning one in the city of Magwe, as well. Possibly more out there. Enough to brand the style as distinctly Burmese. Perhaps the work of a specific architect?

45 degrees

Under the awning

Showing today: "Rock Star In-Law"

Movie-goers wait in the lobby.

Encounters of a ticket-buying kind

Ticket booth flora

At 10 AM on a Sunday, the Thida staff was busy preparing for its first screening of the day. A few dozen morning movie-goers sat quietly in the lobby, waiting for the auditorium doors to open. The crowd was mix of older folks enjoying retirement and teenagers enjoying the weekend. Several young men responsible for security at the Thida were hesitant to allow photographs of anything besides the exterior at first, but gradually eased up on their prohibitions as I pleaded my case. When the manager arrived, all laws were repealed and an invitation to document extended ipso facto.

The ticket hawking trio

Smiling sales woman

The manager, as it turns out, a Mr. Aye Myint of Yangon, is a veteran of the local film industry. Prior to his now 10-year-long stint as manager of the Thida, U Aye Myint was the chief cinematographer for a movie production company. While documenting the Thida his dormant talents were resurrected en force as he began calling the shots as to where and what to photograph.

U Aye Myint in side wing exterior of the auditorium.

Movie in progress

Ownership of the Thida is held by a private company, the details of which I was able to find little about. Apparently they produce films as well as exhibit them, though whether or not they own any other theaters is unknown. Either way, the Thida Cinema is likely their flagship.

U Aye Myint in his office

The word Thida is the Burmese version of Sita, the name of Rama's wife in the Hindu-Buddhist epic the Ramayana. Though of religious origins, the Ramayana has long been performed as a play throughout the Theravada Buddhist world. The choice of naming a movie theater after one of the story's chief protagonists, then, links this ancient artistic tradition with the modern art of motion pictures, even if the coming of cinema has put countless Ramayana troupes out of work since its inception.