Life in a microcosm

movie & TV August 17, 2017 01:00


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A new documentary looks at the life and loss of a Surin native who loses his job when the cinema at which he's employed shuts its doors for good

When director Wattanapume Laisuwanchai first came up with the idea for the documentary “Niran Ratree” (“Phantom of Illumination”), his initial intention was to recount the love story of his parents, with a standalone cinema as a backdrop. After going from movie theatre to movie theatre in search of a place that matched the happy memories of his mum and dad and coming up empty-handed, he was almost ready to call it quits. 

Then he met Samrith (Rith) Prapakone. A Surin native who worked as the projectionist at the Thon Buri Rama cinema for more than a decade, Rith was about to lose his job as yet another theatre gave way to the exigencies of the modern multiplex. 

Over the four years it has taken to complete the project, Wattanapume visited the movie theatre several times, even after it shut its doors for the final time. 

“After a few months of visiting the theatre, I decided to focus on him. I became interested in Rith as he talked about his feelings for the cinema, the wife and kid and child he left behind in Surin and his sense of hopelessness at having nowhere to go,” says the director.

“The film not only talks about the collapse of the standalone cinema but of everything on its periphery. Rith is a prime example of someone who can’t move on after the closure.”


Like many who left behind rural poverty to work in Bangkok, Rith had only one skill – that of a projectionist.

“I am not sure whether the film judges him and portrays him as a loser. There are other social factors that come into play and perhaps I didn’t make them clear in the film. Rith is like other rural folk who feel lost in Bangkok even though they are the pillars of the Bangkok ecosystem,” he says.

Wattanapume has always been fascinated by the lives of the rural poor who move to Bangkok to find work. A Bangkok native himself, he observes how country people are everywhere in the city and form the backbone of the capital’s economy, yet there is little interest in their lives. His previous short film “Dreamscape” talked with people in Bangkok from children to street vendors, asking them where they came from, how they felt about Bangkok and their hopes and dreams. He would then ask them to draw whatever came into their minds and later recreated the drawings, adding lighting or turning them into moving pictures. 

That approach, he explains, reflects the Buddhism belief in the impermanence of everything. 

“My intention was to capture moments in Rith’s life and turn it into a micro story. We tend to preserve the macro, say archaeological finds or stories of the elite, but ignore ordinary lives,” says the graduate in Communication Design from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. A few months later he created a buzz when his thesis film “Passing Through the Night” was selected for the “Orizzonti” category at the Venice International Film Festival in 2011. He and college friend Nuntawat Jarusruangnil went on to set up a production company called Eyedropper Fill and started focusing on making music videos and TV documentaries. They have also dabbled in multimedia work and were behind the “Aquaria” art installation for Habito Mall. 

“Sansiri approached me to create some events for their new project,” he explains.

“Aquaria” plays with a space of screen and reality, leading audience to wear outfits that transform them into jellyfish exploring the place with vision, audition and somatosensation, enabling them to interact with the things around.

The shift to commercial work also allowed time for personal projects like 

 making films. Since his graduation, his films mostly are inspired by his childhood memories.

Wattanapume prefers to use abandoned locations like empty buildings or movie theatres and these have made an appearance in his work from his thesis to “Yaam Mua Sang Dub Laa” (“Lucid Reminiscence”). 

The film “Lucid” was made for the Thai Film Archive and explored the good old days of the movie theatre through interviews with three people – critics Kittisak Suwanabhokin and Manotham Theamtheabrat and movie director Somkiet Vithuranich. Their faces are not shown during the film. Indeed the only visual stimulation is two abandoned standalone cinemas mostly used to store the paraphernalia of street vendors and children’s playgrounds.

“Perhaps that fascination comes from my childhood experience,” says the director, whose father ran a construction material shop and would often take his son to construction sites to deliver the materials. While waiting for his father, he played around alone in the area.

 “Personally I like the word ‘abandoned’ whether it refers to the place or people. I always wonder why those 

 ‘abandoned’ people or places are ignored but at the same time attract me,” he says.

“Phantom” narrates the projectionist’s story and is divided in two parts: his years at the cinema and his eventual return home.

Wattanapume adds that when he shot the film, Rith hadn’t yet decided to return home. He followed him to Surin when he visited his family. “He still worked at the theatre after it closed down. The owner still paid his wages and he sent the money back home. Finally he quit and returned to Surin. 

Rith, though, struggles to start anew. His attempts to join his wife on the rubber plantation fail and he starts drinking heavily. He eventually finds peace by becoming a monk.

The director insists that the film is a documentary as it based mostly on true event.

“Only for the ending do we move slightly away from documentary. For me, no matter how many how many real-life events we recorded, at the end of the day the film will tell be edited through the eyes of filmmaker,” he says.

“Phantom”, which was completed earlier this year, premiered at the Copenhagen International Docu- mentary Festival and earned a Special Mention award. The jury was complimentary in its remarks, noting that the tropical climate and hints of the supernatural made for a dark and melancholic movie about a man’s last days in the ruins of an abandoned cinema. 

“A touching tale of one man’s identity evaporating in between the new non-possibilities of urbanisation and the estrangement from his village roots,” commented one panellist..

The film has since been shown at the Taipei Documentary Film Festival and the Salaya Documentary Film Festival.

“Going to film festivals adds credit to the documentary and lets me know where it is on the map of the world,” he says.

“What I like most about festivals are the Q&A sessions. These help me to find out the flaws in my work and the best points direct from the audience. Whether it’s good or bad I like the reaction from the audience,” he says.

Wattanpume isn’t sure what direction he’ll follow for his next work. He might move on from childhood inspirations and begin examining events more related to his teenage experiences. 

“I think it will probably take reference from the country’s education system, because of its major influence on mindsets and social norms,” he says.

He is also interested in making studio films. 

“I think I can tune into the studio system if I’m offered the chance,” he says.


  “Niran Ratree” (“Phantom of Illumination”) goes on release today at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld. It will move to House RCA on August 31.

 Find out more about the film at