Plans are afoot to renovate Bangkok's wooden Nang Loeng cinema in Time for its centenary
On Saturday, for the first time in 20 years, Isaree Moryaa watched a film. Once a regular moviegoer, she tells XP that she abandoned the cinema when free-standing theatres evolved into multiplex venues at shopping centres.
Saturday’s visit to the Thai Film Archive on Buddha Monthon Sai 5 Road was different though, and the 69-year-old had tears in her eyes when she learned from the subsequent discussion session that her favourite movie theatre, the Sala Chaloem Thani, also known as Nang Loeng Cinema, was going to be renovated and reopened, more than two decades after it closed.
Organised by the Film Archive, the discussion was led by architectural heritage management researcher Rungsima Kullapat and American Philip Jablon, who wrote his master’s degree thesis on Thai movie theatres while studying at the Regional Centre of Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University. The pair talked about the decline of old movie theatres and the revival of the Nang Loeng Cinema, which will celebrate its centenary in 2018.
When it finally closed its doors in 1993, the cinema was one of the world’s oldest wooden movie theatres.
Like most of Nang Loeng, the land on which the theatre stands is owned by the Crown Property Bureau and was on a decades-long lease which finally came up for renewal in June. Once it reaches centenary status, it will be registered as an historical site by the Fine Arts Department, thus ensuring its preservation and preventing it from being torn down and replaced by a modern development.
Built in 1920, the 400-seat Nang Loeng theatre was constructed of teak and topped with a galvanised iron roof. Both the cinema and the wider Nang Loeng area were associated with the late movie superstar Mitr Chaibancha, who lived there in 1940s to 1950s. After his death in a filming accident in 1970, his cremation was held at the nearby Wat Sunthon Thammathan (Wat Khae Nang Loeng).
Closed as a result of the decreasing interest in Thai films, the cinema became a warehouse for the local market. The bureau announced years ago that it would keep the cinema intact and indeed was thinking of renovating it, but no further action was ever taken. Rungsima and members of the Film Archive met the bureau representative last week to submit her research on the renovation of the theatre and the response was positive.
Rungsima, who works as a lecturer and researcher in the US, has devoted a great deal of time to examining movie theatre preservation in an attempt to find the right procedure for Nang Loeng. The best approach, she says, is to restore it as a living museum, maintaining its duties as a movie theatre but adding additional services such as a library and exhibition space.
The renovated theatre could be used to screen special movies or host film festivals.
Jablon who travelled across Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam documenting old and abandoned cinemas for his blog, the Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project, adds that revived theatres could not possibly complete with modern multiplex cinemas or screen blockbusters.
“Who would go? I would, but not many other people. The renovation has to add another kind of function such as an educational experience. It should be the place where you go to learn something, and get something more than just a laugh from a watching movie,” he says.
He adds that going to see a movie at this kind of cinema offers a very different experience from the multiplex.
“You get to experience the city in a different way too and this adds value for people,” he says.
Thai Film Archivist Dome Sukvongse who has been pushing the Nang Loeng renovation idea for years says it’s time to stop talking.
“Action must start at once,” he stresses.
Rungsima estimates that renovations should take no longer than a year. Jablon adds that the Nang Loeng rehabilitation could serve as a model for other venues and inspire other communities to renovate their old theatres too.
From his travels documenting demolished theatres, Jablon discovered that most had been closed because of a decline in business. The properties were often transformed into parking lots, warehouses or furniture shops. One cinema in the South, he explains, had even been given over to swiflets so that their nests could later be harvested and sold.
Yet, remarkably, some old and rundown cinemas continue to survive, among them the Thai Rama movie theatre in Si Sa Ket’s Utumporn Pisai district. The ticket price there is just Bt20 and despite the lack of air-conditioning, youngsters still spend time there. Jablon is full of praise for the owner, pointing out that he continues to run the business even though it makes little profit.
He adds that the owner read a story about his cinema in The Nation and celebrated by giving it a coat of paint.
“People in the community can work alongside the archive and preservationist in pushing for the project to happen. I am convinced that a newly restored Nang Loeng cinema can inspire other old movie theatres to do the same.”
Isaree agrees. “If the cinema is brought back to life it will be good for the community, especially the elderly residents. They will love spending time there and nurturing their nostalgic for the good old days,” she says.
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