Even if Philip Jablon had kept strictly to his original premise of documenting Thailand’s purpose-built movie theatres—an obsession he claims first took hold in 2008—this volume would’ve filled a worthy niche. From the book’s earliest temple of celluloid, Bangkok’s Prince Theatre from 1912, Jablon’s photographs capture a wealth of 20th-century architectural styles, from Bangkok’s tropical art deco Scala Theatre (built in 1969) to the brutalist Siri Phanom Rama Theatre (built in 1979) in Chachoengsao Province, each filtered through a distinct Southeast Asian sensibility.
Along with theatre exteriors, numerous lobbies and the occasional auditorium, Jablon also gathers a range of movie memorabilia, particularly movie posters and hand-painted banners. Obsessing on the exterior of cinematic culture obviously spurred reflections of what went on inside, bringing Jablon to punctuate his capsule descriptions of individual theatres with personal and historical anecdotes. Opening with a montage of improbably ornate admission tickets and closing with a bilingual graphic warning, “Please check your personal belongings before leaving your seat,” Jablon attempts nothing less than bringing the Thai movie-going experience to a coffee table near you.
At a time when seeing a movie generally means a trip to the shopping mall—that is, for those who want a more elaborate experience than home streaming—it takes some effort to imagine the process in Thailand for much of the 20th century. Seeing a film meant first getting to the theatre, which generally involved engaging with a bustling urban environment (and perhaps much the reverse if your show let out late enough). For rural audiences, it could be an all-day affair. In the days before home electrification, neon was a great enticement—and if the film didn’t quite live up to the billing, Jablon recalls, at least there was a possibility of an air-conditioned nap.
From its earliest days, Thai film culture has been a mix of local, regional and international fare, a constant brew of imitation and innovation where lines were often indiscernible. Horror films, a staple of the local film industry since the 1970s, were spurred to life by the phenomenal success of The Omen. Jablon recounts the film’s premiere at the Siam, where the audience overflow soon spilled into the lobby. Quickly, the management organized a screening down the street at its sister theatre, the Lido. When the Lido briskly sold out, management then turned to the Scala. As each reel finished, it was packed up and rushed to the next theatre. “This is perhaps the only time in Thai movie history that a single print of a film served three different movie theatres at the same time,” Jablon writes.
After taking us into the projection rooms, Jablon also introduces the dubbers. Before translated soundtracks were placed directly on film, announcers would translate the show live, playing multiple characters and often localizing the story. Jablon recalls the 1973 run of Sidney Lumet’s Serpico at the Indra Theatre in Nakhn Si Thammarat, when Sirichai Duangphatra not only dubbed the voice of Al Pacino’s whistle-blowing New York City police officer but also changed the names to include many well-known corrupt cops in the local police force. (Though he was later found guilty of libel, the performance made Sirichai a local folk hero.)
Jablon’s book arrives at a time when the world it depicts is on the verge of extinction. A decade ago, there were 25 active stand-alone movie theatres in the country; now, he writes, there are three. Traditional movie-going may be in flux worldwide, but even common problems face distinctively local obstacles in Thailand.
The closing dates of many theatres here paint the picture more clearly. Many shuttered their doors during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Other problems were technological. Thailand was one of the last holdouts as film projectors switched from carbon arcs to xenon bulbs in the 1970s. When the new technology arrived a decade later, many theatre owners decided to close rather than deal with the cost of changing equipment. (A similar situation would play out again in 2015 with a change from analog to digital projection.)
Perhaps the saddest tale is that of Bangkok’s beloved Siam Theatre, which had helped turn the Siam Square area into one of the city’s most prominent commercial districts in the 1970s. The Siam’s tragic end came in 2010 when it was burned to the ground amid a violent military crackdown during the “red shirt” political protests.
Jablon ends with a slender hope that trends toward renovation and historical preservation will take hold in Thailand before the last of these theatres are gone. But for a movie-going culture that is today defined by the shopping mall, the land where the Siam Theatre once stood is now the site of a mall with no movie theatres at all.