Monday, October 31, 2011

The Chumphae Cineplex - Chumphae, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand

Now where was I? Burma, right? Somewhere in Bago Division, if I recall. That was way back in January. Resumption of the project begins again in Thailand's mostly-bucolic northeast: the vast Lao-speaking domains of Isan. Of the all the Thai regions I've covered, only Isan has a significant collection of operating stand-alones. It's been a goal to shoot them all while they're still around, before chain-store homogeneity overtakes and undermines them, sucking their clientele into a vortex of prefabricated chintz.

The journey begins in Chumphae, a westerly district of Khon Kaen Province and frontier for lowland wet-rice agriculture. Any further west and the mountains of Petchabun come into play. The approach to Chumphae along highway 12 - which runs the width of north-central Thailand from border to border - is marked by a drastic shift from rural to urban, rice paddy and cane field to concrete slab. From the road, it looks as if an entire Bangkok neighborhood has been broken off from the megalopolis and flung into the countryside, one enormous discarded piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I am reminded that in Thailand, concrete is not only the building material of choice, but it is the building material of empire.

To escape from this concrete monotony, which is wholly encompassing in Chumphae, a near monopoly, one must turn to the movie theater - which is also made of concrete. Reprieve can be found in the form of an enjoyable film, but more firmly in the notion that the Chumphae Cineplex, as it is named, serves a function not unlike a public square: a space for social interaction, or quiet relaxation. I found a bit of both in the spacious and airy lobby of the this late-addition stand-alone.

A hand-painted billboard advertises the latest Thai ghost-comedy, Ban Phee Pob. Behind it, the Chumphae Cineplex is aglow in morning light.

Just like the Chumphae Cineplex, a large portion of Thai stand-alone movie theaters are set back in courts, plazas, or otherwise removed from street-side adjacency. Although the space in front is often used by movie-goers to park their motorbikes, the distance between theater and thoroughfare serves as insulation against noise, pollution and noise pollution. As public space is painfully absent in most Thai urban areas, a downtown cinema, with an open-air lobby, is indeed, akin to a park.

Simply designed, with a true functionalist aesthetic, the Chumphae Cineplex .

The term "cineplex," when applied to a single-screen, stand-alone movie theater is a little misleading. Breaking the compounded word into two we are left with "cinema" and "complex," which implies a plurality of parts. Conventionally speaking, a cineplex will either have more than one screen, or more than one function. But in the case of many late-era Thai stand-alones, of which there are few, the term is applied for strictly semantic reasons. Cineplex sounds more up-to-date, more fashionably modern than the traditional terms of "cinema", "theater," or, in the Thai lexicon, "rama." So don't be fooled! The Chumphae Cineplex, along with a handful of theaters to come, are in actuality stand-alones.

Lower lobby view

In the shark's jaws and ticket vendor's hands

In a way, an art gallery.

A cinematic transaction.

Upper lobby.

Lobby lounging

The Chumphae Cineplex auditorium has just over 200 seats. Not a giant like those built during the height of Thailand's movie theater boom. But that, of course, was a different era.


Thailand's all-time highest grossing film, Suriyothai, did wonders for the domestic movie theater industry. In some cases, theaters which had gone out of business in recent years prior, reopened for exclusive screenings of this royally produced (and I mean that literally) historical epic. That was in 2001, the same year the Chumphae Cineplex came into existence. It might be a stretch to say that this late-era stand-alone was built to capitalize on the publicity of Suriyothai, but the timing didn't hurt. More generally, one can easily imagine desperate exhibitors, owners of theaters on the verge of shutting down, getting their hopes up as capacity crowds turned out on a nightly basis for the propaganda. A palliative event, however, in the long run. Demographic shifts, the spread of home entertainment, combined with the opportunism of multiplex chains have ensured a slow death for the independent theater operator.

The manager of the Chumphae Cineplex - a bizarrely attractive woman to be running a small town movie theater - casually mentioned that she would be closing it permanently in the near future if attendance didn't pick up.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back on Track

After a long, restrained hiatus, new life and new images are soon to come. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

American Movie Palaces, Up Close

About a week ago, a friend turned me on to the web-site of yet another kindred spirit who's gone out of his way to show us the unparalleled beauty of America's tattered palaces. He calls his site After the Final Curtain. If you like what goes up at the SEA Movie Theater Project, have a look at this one. It'll knock your socks off!

Auditorium of Loew's Palace Theater of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Courtesy of "After the Final Curtain"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Busan Cinema Center - Busan, South Korea

For the past three years I've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stand-alone movie theaters. Describing them, chronicling their existence, their atmosphere and their frequent demise. Between a few Southeast Asian countries, I've visited over two-hundred of them, some palatial and grand, others dingy, faded or on the verge of collapse. Each possesses a unique character worthy of documentation. On rare occasions, I've written about theater treasures like Yangon's Thamada, or the Scala in Bangkok; how such theaters exemplify the spirit of the times in which they were built, the aspirations of their builders and the forward looking gaze of the societies they served. Such beauties continue to dazzle decades after their construction. But this past weekend I was in a movie theater that, for all its grandeur and architectural magnitude, its aspirations and representations, defies anything I have ever seen.

The Busan Cinema Center, opening in conjunction with the 16th annual Busan International Film Festival, elevates movie-going to a level seldom seen. It recaptures the essence of what it's all about. The sanctity of the process is reborn, as the movie-goer is reminded that a trip to the cinema used to be about more than just being entertained.

The Busan Cinema Center

It's no easy task to summarize the Busan Cinema Center. For one, at over 60,000 square meters of floor space, it's enormous. Not a structure that can be taken in in one gaze without the benefit of a bird's eye view. The design was put together by the Austrian firm of Coop Himmelblau, known for their post-modern architectural extremism. In keeping with their extreme theme, their Busan Cinema Center includes the worlds largest cantilevered roof, rising dramatically from a single column and suspended over an open air plaza. This feature has an awe inspiring affect. Once under the cantilevered roof - especially at night, when the ceiling lighting system is activated - the transportation process begins. Welcome to the world's preeminent cathedral of cinema.

Busan. International. Film. Festival.

Funding for the Busan Cinema Center was largely shouldered by the municipality of Busan. As proof of its commitment to civic engagement, a 4,000 seat open air theater comprises the most dramatic of viewing options. This is where the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival, along with the awards ceremonies, took place.

Movie-goers en route to the Busan International Film Fest (BIFF) and the inaugural run of the Busan Cinema Ceneter.

Entrance to the Cine Mountain portion of the Cinema Center: the nine-story tall home to three permanent movie halls and one mixed use venue.

The above photo depicts the entrance to the Cine Mountain, the main functional portion of the Center, housing four auditoriums on three levels. I was only able to enter one of the auditoriums during my visit: the 841 seat, triple tiered Haneulyeon Theater - a multipurpose auditorium, just as well suited for concerts and live performance as it is film. Elegant wooden seats topped with cherry red cushioning echo the red balcony surface, which wraps around the side walls of the theater like a ribbon.

Sloping walls.

Entering the lobby of the Cine Mountain, into a sleek world of film.

A glass enclosed elevator brings movie-goers to the second and third floor balconies of the Haneulyeon Theater.

Elevated view via escalator

The upper levels of the Cine Mountain hold three auditoriums: one medium sized and two small. These three auditoriums will hold regular commercial screenings year round when BIFF is not using them.

Upper lobby lounging

Concession lines

The crowning part of this entire experience for me was having a collection of SEA Movie Theater Project images beautifully displayed in the lobby of the Busan Cinema Center.

Here's a few shots of the exhibit:

In a post-modern sense, the Busan Cinema Center does for Korea what the Sydney Opera House does for Australia: it confirms, definitively, a level of commitment to the arts and culture, and an inspired disposition for the entire world to see. It creates a recognizable emblem. But ultimately, it lifts Korea and its film industry onto the world stage. A well done and well deserved achievement.