Top: The Bang Khae Rama opened in Bangkok in 1971 and was demolished in 2015. Photo: Philip Jablon / Courtesy
Sukhothai had the Ma Win Rama. In Udon Thani, it was the Vista. Suphanburians went to the Fah Siam. Across Thailand, movie palaces were the center of life for much of the 20th century, long before social media, malls or even television lured eyeballs away.
Before they met wrecking-ball destiny, many cinemas were photographed by Philiip Jablon, an American who spent over a decade documenting them at the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project and has just published a book of their stories that explains how cinema helped shape modern Thailand.
“It was basically the living room of the community,” Jablon said. “It was where all kinds of social events took place.”
Jablon said he scoured nearly all 76 provinces to find the theaters featured in Thailand’s Movie Theaters: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape, many of which were destroyed soon after he visited them.
The boom in theater construction came as war raged in Vietnam, and Thailand’s alliance with the United States reaped a large dividend of investment and development. Roads were laid to remote locations, and cinemas followed.
The theaters, many stunning examples of mid-century Thai modernism, showed films not just from Hollywood but also Hong Kong, Indonesia and elsewhere, Jablon said, introducing many Thais to the rest of the world. They also helped usher in infrastructure, ideas and consumerism that helped transform Thai society.
Hear my interview with Philip Jablon in The Coconuts Podcast
Kong Rithdee of the Thai Film Archive said Jablon’s work reconnects the current state of film culture to the past he remembers, and expands greatly upon previous efforts by the likes of Filmvirus.
“Because we grew up going to the cinemas, we grew up knowing that movies were projected on film, 35 or 16mm,” Kong said. “It’s just like young people who don’t know that telephones used to have lines attached to them.
Instead of subtitles for foreign films, they featured actors doing live dubbing of the lines and sometimes adapting the characters and stories to fit local circumstances.
In one anecdote, he recounted how the 1973 police drama Serpico was retold in Nakhon Si Thammarat with the names of its fictional corrupt cops changed to local corrupt cops. Audiences went wild over the localized version; the local police charged the dubber with defamation.
Demand was so high that theaters would often sell “standing room” tickets for people, like when The Omen opened in Bangkok in 1976. Interest for the movie at Siam Theatre, one of three Apex cinemas in Siam Square put to the torch in 2010, was so frenzied that the theater feared a riot over seats at a midnight showing.
Because films came on reels then, they made the decision to quickly rewind the first one after it showed and send someone running it over to Lido. There it was shown to another audience, while the next reel played at the Siam. Even that didn’t prove enough, so they opened their third theater, the Scala, and kept running the reels between all three.
“So you had three theaters, basically with 1,000 seats each, playing the same movie, with the same set of reels,” Jablon said.
Scala in Siam Square is the only remaining movie palace still functioning as a theater in Bangkok, and Jablon is optimistic that it survived long enough to secure a future.