Saturday, May 15, 2004

New arthouse in Bangkok

My current favorite place to watch movies in Bangkok is at the Apex theatres in Siam Square. Actually, they've been my favorite ever since I discovered them in July 1999, when I saw Star Wars I.

Since then, I've seen some much better movies there. They play some off-beat movies that aren't shown in any of the mainstream multiplexes around town. For example, this week, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, starring Audrey Tautou is playing. Films I've seen there in the past include Amelie, Dirty Pretty Things, the experimental Thai film I-san Special and Battle Royale 2. Upcoming will be Audition. Just the preview for that movie creeps me out.

The Apex complex consists of the Lido multiplex (where most of the stuff I consider arthouse is shown) and the Siam and Scala theatres. The latter two are single-screen venues that show mostly first-run, mainstream stuff. They are my first choice when catching a new movie, as they make the movie experience much better than any of the cookie-cutter mall cineplexes with postage-stamp screens, high prices and inconsiderate audiences.

Now, a new arthouse theatre called House is in the works, according to an article by Kong Rithdee in Friday's Bangkok Post (Real.Time, page 1)

A partnership of four young rich Thais plans to turn the older UMG RCA multiplex into an arthouse haven. This move comes at a perfect time, as the Royal City Avenue (RCA) neighborhood of nightclubs will be a hotter spot in the coming months. This is for a couple of reasons. First, a new subway line will be opening there in August, making the area much more accessible. And second RCA is one of the areas that the government has named an "entertainment zone", where presumably nightlife can continue well past the current midnight or 1am or 2am curfew.

The four partners are: Chomsajee Techaratanaprasert, 24, daughter of Somsak Techaratanaprasert of Sahamongkol Film, one of Thailand's biggest distributors of foreign films; "Ted" Yuthana Boon-om, 37, a promoter of the indie music scene, organiser of Bangkok's Fat Festival for indie bands and now with the television producing company Polyplus; Arunee Srisuk, 34, movie publicist, event organiser, all-round freelancer in all chores relating to Thai cinema; and Pongnarin U-lit, 33, Chulalongkorn University film department graduate, host of a cinema talk radio shows and film critic.

"I've had an idea to open a cinema house with a theme, with a clear scope of the films we show, but I just don't have the manpower," Chomsajee told the Post.

"Meanwhile," added Yuthana, "we've long wanted to see a cinema that shows the kind of movies that regular theatres have no interested in showing. But we don't know how to start. My original idea was to rent one of those old, abandoned cinemas and renovate it into a kind of arthouse theatre. But hey, that requires such huge investment that I knew it was impossible."

Now, with the deep pockets of Sahamongkol, it's possible. The group has renovated two 200-seat theatres that will include a coffee bar and later an art gallery and a bookshop.

And despite being a project of Sahamongkol, House will function as an independent theatre that welcomes movies from all film importers (currently only Lido comes close to that status).

Sahamongkol failed in a previous attempt to create an exclusive arthouse at the former World Trade Centre. A problem with non-mainstream films in Bangkok is their short shelf-life. When a movie, for example, The Triplets of Belleville (currently on show at Lido), opens in the first week and the audience's response is not impressive, the theatre will reduce the showtimes and gradually fade the title out after two or three weeks. This puts added pressure on film-buffs to try to attend the screenings. Meanwhile, marketers know that sometimes a good film needs a longer period to build up word-of-mouth and generate interest.

House vows to fix that glitch: It intends to run each title for at least a month or longer regardless of the audience's reception.

To celebrate its grand opening next month, House plans to show 150 films during the first two weeks.

"We've selected 150 movies of the past few years that might have had a short run at Bangkok theatres or that never got a release, from Chinese classic like Zhang Yimou's Story of Qi Ju to City of God and everything in between. All you have to do is pay a membership fee of just 100 baht, then you can watch as many films as you want within these first three weeks."

Well, I'm excited. I've been thinking about the Story of Qi Ju and would like to see that again. Until the subway opens, RCA is hard to get to with the traffic situation in Bangkok, but I might make an effort depending on the movies they're showing.

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