The past that never left

lifestyle January 15, 2012 00:00

By Philip Jablon
Special to the

3,893 Viewed

See the latest hit films at the Thai Rama Theatre for Bt20. Maybe Bt10



The Thai Rama Theatre is the only cinema that Uthumphon Pisai has ever known, and it’s the last one still operating as a stand-alone in Si Sa Ket province.

Bucking a seemingly irresistible trend, this small-town theatre refuses to close, surviving the triple threat of home entertainment, the Internet and the multiplex cinema that’s available in a neighbouring town.

Its secret is simple economy: The Thai Rama has the lowest ticket price in the country – Bt20.

Like most stand-alone theatres in small Thai towns, the Thai Rama was built near the heart of the community, perfect for a largely pedestrian population.

When it opened in 1977, much of the countryside had yet to be linked to the electricity grid. The local cinema, then powered by diesel generator, topped the list of places to go for entertainment. That has all changed over the last two decades.

For the majority of Thais under the age of, say, 25, seeing a movie has usually gone hand in hand with a trip to a shopping mall. In metropolitan Bangkok, over 95 per cent of the more than 600 movie screens are wedded in consumer matrimony to these shopping behemoths. The same pattern exists in all of Thailand’s larger urban areas.

But for Thais middle-aged and older, movie-going in decades past consisted of trips to grand stand-alone theatres, which contained a lone screen and many hundreds, if not thousands, of seats – not unlike the Thai Rama.

By the mid-1970s, nearly every district across the country could boast of at least one such theatre. Bangkok alone counted somewhere in the vicinity of 200, almost as diverse as the owners themselves. They played an array of domestic and foreign films.

Beyond the cinematic spectacle, some theatre operators sought to further dazzle audiences through the grandiose architecture of the theatre itself. The latest in modern design and technology was employed by some of the day’s leading architects to achieve this effect.

Thailand’s first escalator, for example, was used to transport moviegoers from foyer to upper lobby at Bangkok’s Siam Theatre. Upon opening on December 15, 1966, the Siam – part of the Apex theatre chain – became a symbol of high-modernity, remaining popular until its untimely demise during the protests of May 2010.

In 1933, 33 years before the Siam, the Chalerm Krung Theatre opened to similar accolades as one of the first buildings in the nation with air-conditioning. These buildings set new standards, not just in terms of watching films, but as markers of technical progress in an era of rapid change.

But today, only a fraction of these once-ubiquitous venues continue to operate. Many hundreds have been demolished as the movie-going public has capitulated to the shopping-mall multiplexes with their easy parking and all-in-one conveniences.

In Uthumphon Pisai, however, for less than the price of a bowl of noodles, you can still experience the joys of the silver screen the old-fashioned way. A family of five, living off a single minimum wage, can comfortably enjoy this luxury at such a price.

But it gets even better than that: In a display of her affection for the business, the Thai Rama’s owner-operator – a middle-aged woman who inherited the theatre from her late parents – outdid her own rock-bottom price.

“Buy tickets for next week’s movie today and pay only Bt10,” she announced recently as a group of patrons filed through the door.

Her explanation as to why so low: “We’re an old theatre, without air-conditioning, and in need of a paint job.” Clearly this is a theatre owner for whom community spirit trumps profits.

Pleasantly absent at this astonishingly low price are the droves of rambunctious teens that must be negotiated at the multiplex in the shopping mall. Thai Rama attendees are there for the sole purpose of watching a movie, not as an afterthought on a shopping spree.

Thirty minutes worth of onscreen advertisements prior to the show is likewise not an issue at the Thai Rama, in contrast to the big-name multiplexes. Instead, the erstwhile norm of a few previews and the cinematic homage to the King is all one sees.

Admittedly, for Bt20 – six times below the national average for a movie – there are some noticeable technical omissions. For one, there is no frigid air-conditioning as is common at the multiplexes. In fact, the Thai Rama has managed to cool its patrons for 35 years with nothing more than industrial-sized wall fans.

Nor will you find fancy seats with cup-holder armrests that can be raised to get closer to a date. The seats at the Thai Rama are metal framed, deep-pocketed and – though sufficiently comfortable –perform no function other than providing a place to sit, one person at a time.

But even if the rickety, two-reel projectors caused the picture to shake at times, and the antiquated sound system botched the audio during a few scenes, the overall movie-watching experience is pure joy. Maybe it is precisely this rustic imperfection, this down-home sense of community, that’s so comforting in an age of superficial gloss and hyper-consumption.

Either way, at Bt20 a pop, it’s hard to complain.

>>>Philip Jablon runs the Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project. Find out more at SeaTheater.blogspot.com.>>>