Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bangkok Asean Film Festival review: Manila in the Claws of Light, Bitcoins Heist

The titan of Filipino cinema, Lino Brocka, always focused on the unfairly exploited working class. His gripping 1975 picture, Manila in the Claws of the Light (Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag) is the pulpy story of a young man from a fishing village, who comes to the cruel metropolis to track down his ex-girlfriend Ligaya. She was lured away by a pig-woman, with promises of working in a factory and furthering her education. Yeah, right. We all know how that goes.

In rough-and-tumble Manila, he's zeroed in, locating her likely whereabouts to a certain shophouse on Misericordia Street, which he watches like a hawk.

To support his stalking efforts, Julio takes jobs in construction, and, um, other fields.

Much of the film deals with the hardships of big-city construction work, where laborers push wheelbarrows, shovel gravel, haul on ropes and die. They are building the flashy concrete high-rises that inundate the metropolitan skyline. Later, he's laid off from the construction job, and drifts into the sex trade, which Brocka depicts with flamboyantly entertaining flair.

More than a few folks in the classic film's one-off screening at the Bangkok Asean Film Festival were murmuring about how Julio, played by still-steady-working actor Bembol Roco, looked just like Thai action star Tony Jaa. So it turned into an exercise of folks imagining what it would be like if Tony mostly ditched the flying double-knee-drops and just did dramatic acting. Where, indeed, is my elephant?

Anyway, Manila in the Claws of Light is a marvel. And Martin Scorsese was well aware of the film's power. He supported efforts to have a 4K digital restoration done. One of the cinematographers, Mike de Leon, cast his eyes on the laborious wet-scanning process, and shepherded through the color-grading effort, making sure all the grit, grime and blood clearly and vividly pop off the screen with no muss and no fuss. It is Taxi Driver. It is Mean Streets. And it kicks the butts of both those films. (5/5)

Speaking of kicking butts, there's Vietnamese action cinema, which has rapidly grown and matured since the early 2000s arrival of many U.S.-schooled Vietnamese returnees who grew up watching Spielberg movies and working in Hollywood. They jump-started Vietnam's commercial film industry and make solidly mainstream box-office hits in all the crowd-pleasing genres.

Among them is Ham Tran, who made his breakthrough in 2007 with the post-American War drama Journey from the Fall. Since then, he's become solidly involved in the Ho Chi Minh City film industry, racking up a dozen or so credits as editor, including the action films The Rebel and Clash.

Adding writer and director to his name, his latest effort is Bitcoins Heist (Siêu Trộm), an action-comedy-romance that is basically the Vietnamese Ocean's Eleven, with perhaps a bit of Now You See Me tossed in.

So darn slick, I kept sliding out of my seat, Bitcoins Heist enjoyably hits the usual and expected beats of the heist flick, with team assembly, double crosses, triple crosses and sleight of hand.

The attractive and colorful cast is toplined by actresses, chiefly Kate Nhung from Tran's Hollow as Dada, Vietnam's top cyber-crime cop. She is in pursuit of Ghost, a cyber-criminal who remotely takes over people's laptops and demands ransom in bitcoins or else the device will be bricked.

An early attempt at capturing Ghost's accountant Phuc (Thanh Pham) does not go well, and Dada has to turn in her badge and gun. Ngô Thanh Vân, the action heroine from The Rebel and Clash is featured in early scenes as a sexy, tough-as-nails bodyguard to the accountant.

Now working an undercover, off-the-books operation, Dada assembles a team of con-artists, starting with a former boyfriend, the pickpocketing sleight-of-hand specialist Magic Jack (no, it's Jack Magique, he insists), played by the irrepressible Petey Majik, whose acting credits include Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels.

There's a veteran jewel thief and career criminal, played by long-time Ham Tran hand Jayvee Mai The Hiep. He is assisted in thievery by his precocious acrobatic pre-teen daughter (Lam Thanh My).

And, of course, they need a hacker, a plucky young woman whose tech-savvy brother was severely wounded in the film's opening sequence, when the action tumbled into a mobile-phone repair shop. She's Vi, played by freestyling rapper Suboi, who has cyberpunk attitude to spare.

Bitcoins Heist is a welcome genre diversion from the preponderance of Southeast Asian arthouse-focused indie dramas that tend to be programmed at film festivals. It was the Vietnamese entry in the Bangkok Asean Film Festival, running April 22 to 26 at CentralWorld, with movies from all 10 countries of the Asean bloc. Even Brunei was there with the unusual female-focused martial-arts drama Yasmine. Add in the "Asean Classic" selection of three films that included Manila in the Claws of Light, there was something for everyone, and Bitcoins Heist was one for me. (4/5)

See also:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Restored Santi-Veena to screen in Cannes Classics

Turns out there will be a Thai film at this year's Cannes Film Festival after all.

It will be the newly restored Thai romantic drama Santi-Veena (สันติ -วีณา) from 1954. It's part of the just announced Cannes Classics line-up.

Historically, Santi-Veena was the first Thai film to screen in an overseas festival. Directed by Tawee "Kru Marut" na Bangchang with a screenplay by Vichit Kounavudhi and cinematography by Ratt Pestonji, it won three prizes at the 1954 Asia Pacific Film Festival in Tokyo.

Ratt, the pioneering auteur of Thai cinema, won best cinematography and was awarded a Mitchell film camera at the festival. As the story goes, upon his return to Thailand, Ratt was charged $5,000 for the camera by customs officials, and filmmakers were fined 1,000 baht for failing the clear the film with censors. The camera is now the centerpiece of an exhibit with a figure of Pestonji at the Thai Film Museum in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom.

A remake was made in the 1970s. And for decades, it was assumed the original Santi-Veena was lost. But Archive officials always kept their eyes out. Here's more from the Cannes festival website:

The original material of this film was considered lost. In 2014 the original material was found in the British Film Institute as well as the release print in the China Film Archive and at the Gosfilmofond in Russia. A 4K scan and restoration was carried out from the original camera and sound negatives found at the BFI. The restoration work was carried out at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.

The original Santi-Veena was added to the National Film Heritage Registry in 2014.

It will screen at Cannes in a program that also includes the world premiere of the documentary Voyage à travers le cinéma français by Bertrand Tavernier, a masterclass by William Friedkin, "a cross tribute to Raymond Depardon and Frederic Wiseman" and "Nine documentaries about cinema", including the HBO Documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

Other restored classics will include Howards End, Marlon Brando's One Eyed Jacks, Tarkovski's Solyaris and Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum.

Review: Take Me Home

  • Directed by Kongkiat Komesiri
  • Starring Mario Maurer, Wannarote Sonthichai, Noppachai Jayanama
  • Released in Thai cinemas on April 13, 2016; rated 15+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5 

The weird culture of Thai high society – entitled families whose perfect, luxurious existences are insulated from the ordinary working-class world – have long been the subject of the often off-putting and alienating films of ML Bhandevanov Devakula, the blue-blooded director of stage and screen who is better known as "Mom Noi" and is revered in the industry as the acting coach to most of Thailand's movie and TV stars.

With the new horror Take Me Home (สุขสันต์วันกลับบ้าน, Suksan Wan Klab Baan), Mom Noi's painterly, stagebound hi-so sensibilities are merged with indie grit, and the combination is surprisingly potent and enjoyable.

Mom Noi, who directed a string of lavish romantic dramas in the 1980s and '90s and then had a resurgence in recent years with a series of new adaptations of classic Thai novels that had been made into movies long before, is billed as a consultant on Take Me Home.

The thriller notably stars big-name talent Mario Maurer, who came under Mom Noi's tutelage in the dramatist's unique Thai take on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, U mong pa meung, which was titled for the U.S. market as At the Gate of the Ghost. Mario then took the lead in Mom Noi's insanely epic two-part reworking of the erotic tale Jan Dara, which was all about bizarrely flawed rich folks and their oh-so-problematic lives.

But the driving force of Take Me Home is Kongkiat Komesiri, a writer-director who has helmed three very fine films, all slick-but-scuzzy crime dramas, 2007's Muay Thai Chaiya, 2009's Slice and 2012's Antapal.

Take Me Home is being touted as Kongkiat's "first horror", though his previous films, Slice especially, had horror elements, and he did take part in the "Ronin Team" collective effort behind the Five Star Production torture thrillers Art of the Devil.

Kongkiat came up with the story for Take Me Home and got help on the screenplay from Piyaluck Mahatanasab and the industry's go-to script surgeon Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. Piyaluck is also the producer, whose indie shingle North Star was among the imprints on Kongdej's critically hailed post-coup drama Snap, last year.

Mario portrays a young man who was in a coma around 10 years ago. He woke up with no recollection of his life except his name was Tan. While working as an orderly in the hospital's morgue, he's spookily led to clues about his family, and decides to investigate further. "Once you leave here, you can never return," is the administrator's prophetic warning he should've heeded.

The family estate is a modern architectural masterpiece. And he is warmly greeted at the gate by the family's doting maid Waew (Napapha Sukrit), who immediately recognizes him. Singing a soothingly unsettling Thai song, she gives him a lift in a golf cart to the main building, a stunning structure ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest. Inside, the welcome is as cold as all the tile, glass and stainless steel. A pair of horseplaying small children take no heed of Tan. The man of the house is the upright, sweater-clad snob Cheewin (Noppachai Jayanama), who has no clue who Tan is. Cheewin's wife, it turns out, is Tan's beautiful twin sister (Wannarote Sonthichai) Tubtim, whom Tan seems to barely recognize. And Cheewin states flatly that Tubtim never mentioned she had a twin brother.

So right away, nothing is adding up. And therein lies the suspense, as the reality of the house, Tan's family and their tortured history are gradually revealed. Seems Tan's and Tubtim's father was a respected architect who committed suicide. He had bought the house for a song years before, but the former owner felt betrayed. So there's much bad karma in the structure, along with all the right angles and spiral staircases. Tan is trapped, and has to live what appears to be a hellish, Groundhog Day-type existence, repeating fruitless escape attempts over and over.

Mario, the boyish Thai-Chinese-German actor whose career was launched with 2007's Love of Siam, gives what is perhaps his strongest (and sweatiest) performance yet. Noppachai is sure and steady in a supporting role. TV star Wannarote chews up her scenes as the increasingly unstable Tubtim.

With Mom's Noi's hidebound art-museum tendencies kept at arm's length, Kongkiat heads a production that vividly transforms the gleaming white modern home into a moldering, creaking haunted house. It's a welcome, worthy effort from one of the industry's more distinctive writer-directors.

In the meantime, Kongkiat has another feature in the works, the big-budget historical action epic Khun Phan, which stars Ananda Everingham as a policeman in the 1930s who is in pursuit of a roving bandit played by Krissada Sukosol Terrence. The picture, long since in the can, has been on Sahamongkol's release calendar for the past couple of years or so but has remained mysteriously in the vaults. Reportedly, Kongkiat is in the midst of reworking Khun Phan and updating the visual effects.

See also:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Festival, festival (and awards)! The Forest in Udine, Thai Pitch in Cannes, honor for Patong Girl

Paul Spurrier, the Bangkok-based British filmmaker who makes Thai films, has been making the rounds of the festival circuit with his new feature The Forest (ป่า), a thriller about a former monk who takes a teaching post at a rural school and becomes involved in a conflict with corrupt local officials.

The story also involves the friendship between a mute girl and a mysterious boy who lives in the woods. Those two kids, Wannasa Wintawong and Tanapol Kamkunkam, are first-time actors who lived near the remote filming location in Udon Thani, and were picked from a field of around 400 or schoolchildren.

The cast is additionally burnished with a pair of well-known Thai screen talents, Vithaya Pansringarm from Only God Forgives and Asanee Suwan, an actor who best known for his breakout performance in Beautiful Boxer.

Already screened at Cinequest in San Jose, California and the Palm Beach fest in Florida, The Forest is among the Thai selection at the 18th Far East Film Festival, running fomr April 22 to 30 in Udine, Italy.

A micro-budget indie project, which the multi-hyphenate director-cinematographer-writer-propmaster Spurrier made with his wife Jiriya recording sound, The Forest will play in Udine alongside a couple of Thai studio releases from last year, Nawapol Thamrongtattanarit's award-winning Freelance.. Ham Puay Ham Phak Ham Rak More (ฟรีแลนซ์.. ห้ามป่วย ห้ามพัก ห้ามรักหมอ, a.k.a. Heart Attack) and Runpee (รุ่นพี่, a.k.a. Senior), which marked the return to the scene of Wisit Sasanatieng.

The Forest, meanwhile hasn't been released in Thailand, and Spurrier is still in the hunt for a local distributor. He has some censorship concerns, owing to the film's sexual subject matter and some nudity. Worth noting, Spurrier's debut feature, the Thai horror P never got a release in Thailand. And I still haven't seen it. I hope The Forest doesn't suffer the same fate. I mean, even if The Forest doesn't get a big-theater release in Thailand, Paul could always show it at his own private film club.

There's more about the Udine fest at Twitch.

After Udine, the next big thing is the Cannes Film Festival, which has announced the line-up for the 69th edition.

It includes the latest by Filipino Cannes fixture Brillante Mendoza, Ma'Rosa, in the main competition. And Singapore's Boo Junfeng returns to Cannes with The Apprentice in the Un Certain Regard program.

And while no Thai films have yet been included in this year's official selection, there will of course be Thai filmmakers there, thanks to the Culture Ministry, which is flying three directors and their producers to France for the annual Thai Pitch or, more awkwardly and officially, the Thai Pitching Event. This year's trio of directors vying for funding will be Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Anucha Boonyawatana and Rutaiwan Wongsirasawasdi.

With producer Pacharin Surawatanapongs, Nawapol will seek to follow up his multi-award-winner Freelance with Die Tomorrow, which according to The Nation, will be six segments that are inspired by the grisly death photos that are splashed on the front pages of the mass-market Thai daily newspapers.

He has even come up with a concept poster, which is a newspaper page with a photo of young women staring and giggling at the their cellphones. The headline tells what happens to them: "Overloaded boat causes death of three schoolgirls".

Anucha, who had a great year with The Blue Hour storming the festival circuit and winning awards, will be pitching Malila, a Buddhist-themed drama that is being produced by John Badalu and Donsaron Kovitvanitcha.

And, finally, veteran industry hand Rutaiwan has To Become a Butterfly, a drama about a mother devoted to raising an autistic boy. Rutaiwan is perhaps best known for directing the 2005's comedy-drama Wai Onlawon 4 a.k.a. Oops ... There's Dad. She's been a long-time guiding hand behind the scenes at various film companies (she has a cameo as a music-video director in 2011's SuckSeed). Lately, Rutaiwan has been assisting Pen-ek Ratanaruang, working on his made-for-TV effort The Life of Gravity and his new film Samui Song, which everyone assumed would be showing in Cannes, but no. So maybe Venice?

Back in Thailand, the local press has been reporting on Patong Girl (สาวป่าตอง), the Thai-German indie romance about a young German man who falls head-over-heels for a mysterious Thai lass while on vacation in Thailand.

Though the winners were announced sometime back, the Grimme Prize ceremony was held in Marl, Germany, last weekend, with Thai transgender actress "Amp" Aisawanya Areyawattana appearing on German television to accept the award for Patong Girl in the best fiction/special category.

Directed by Susanna Salonen, Patong Girl is getting a release in Thai cinemas on April 21.

There's an interview with Salonen in an article in The Nation today.

Actress Aisawanya Areyawattana at the Grimme Prize ceremony on April 8 in Marl, Germany.

Monday, April 11, 2016

On DVD: Zero Tolerance

I saw the action thriller Zero Tolerance more than a year ago as part of the very unique Thailand International Film Destination Festival.

It was a treat to see, because it was accompanied by a question-and-answer session with director Wych Kaosayananda, star Dustin Nguyen, plus actors Sahajak "Pu" Boonthanakit and Kane Kosugi.

The film, which went on to home-video releases in the U.K. and other territories, has finally come out on DVD in Thailand. In celebration of that, I want to link to an article I did for The Nation back in February 2015.

It was written out of devotion to Dustin, Thai action cinema, the Thailand Film Office's very strange festival, and as a mea culpa to Wych Kaos, who I had so heartlessly trashed in my early blogging days, back when he was trying to make it in Hollywood with the roundly assailed Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, a film I think everyone would rather forget.

I reckon it was the outspoken Wych's participation in the documentary The Stunt that altered my view on his place in the biz.

Here's an excerpt from The Nation piece:

"What happened with Ballistic really pretty much broke me," Wych told the audience. "I didn't want to make films for a while. I turned to music videos and commercials. I worked on other people's films.

"Now I'm over all that. When I started my first professional job, I was 23. Now I'm in my 40s. So, perspective," he said. "I've done three movies that I consider my own – Fah, Ballistic and Zero Tolerance. And ironically, the world has only seen one my movies that is my version, and that's Fah.

"If I'd seen [Zero Tolerance] 10 years ago, it would have upset me. But sitting back there just now, I enjoyed it."

Viewers who have only seen Ballistic might also enjoy Zero Tolerance, with its relative coherence and zippiness being an eye-opener – a more-accurate representation of what the passionate and savvy Kaos is capable of accomplishing.

The rest of the piece is still available on The Nation website.

The DVD, meanwhile, has English and Thai soundtracks and subtitles and is available in Thai shops, including retailers like Boomerang and Cap records.

The story has Dustin in the lead as a former paramilitary operative who comes to Bangkok seeking answers about the death of his daughter Angel. He’s assisted by a former covert-ops colleague, Royal Thai Police officer Peter (Sahajak Boonthanakit). They tangle with various bad guys, including a drug-dealing Westerner (Scott Adkins) and (at least in the version I saw) the owner of a sleazy bar (Gary Daniels). Kane Kosugi also gets his kicks in.

As for the Thailand International Film Destination Festival, which is all about foreign-film productions made in Thailand, word around town is that it might happen again. However, details remain sketchy and probably won't be fully known until right before the festival is set to actually take place.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

In Thai cinemas: Luang Phee Jazz 4G

It's holiday time in Thailand, with today's Chakri Memorial Day kicking off anticipatory celebrations of next week's Songkran Thai New Year, which is a three-day public holiday from next Wednesday to Friday.

In the cinemas, the big Thai tentpole is the Songkran-flavored Luang Phee Jazz 4G (หลวงพี่แจ๊ส 4G, a.k.a. Joking Jazz 4G). It's about a bespectacled, gauge-eared, tattooed hipster with a checkered past who is hiding out as a monk at an isolated mountaintop temple. He's played by hipster comedian Phadung “Jazz Chuanchuen” Songsang. He and his temple-boy friends have an adventure as they are sent to Bangkok on a mission during Songkran.

Directed by Poj Arnon, Luang Pee Jazz 4G is the first release under the prolific producer-director's rebooted Film Guru production marque, which has been relaunched in a new partnership with Major Cineplex, the Kingdom's biggest movie-theater chain.

Poj and Film Guru were formerly associated with Phranakorn Film, a film studio owned by the Thana Cineplex chain of upcountry cinemas. Phranakorn released a string of hit country comedies in the early 2000s, including the original Luang Phee (Holy Man) movie in 2005.

Originated by comedian, actor and director Note Chernyim, the first Luang Phee Teng starred ubiquitous comedian and TV host Pongsak "Theng Terdterng" Pongsuwan as a former street hood who has entered the monkhood and ministers to colorful residents in a provincial town

 Other Luang Phee Teng installments followed in 2008 and 2010, with rapper Joey Boy and actor-musician Krissada Sukosol Clapp taking respective turns as the saffron-clad lead character. As each movie stands alone, with different characters in the lead, they aren't really sequels but are part of a franchise all the same.

The Nation had more on this latest Luang Phee movie, which is the fourth in the series.

Still hanging around after being released a week ago is the anthology horror 11 12 13 Rak Kan Ja Tai (11 12 13 รักกันจะตาย a.k.a. Ghost Is All Around).

Directed by Saravuth Wichiansarn (Ghost Game), it is released by M-Thirtynine, another film-production company that is partnered with Major Cineplex.

The stories will sound familiar if you watch a lot of these Thai horror anthologies – one about a guy haunted by the spirit of his suicidal girlfriend and another about goofball pals haunted by a friend who is dead but doesn't know it. A third story follows a woman who is in for terror in her travels with her gay chum. Heartthrob actor "Weir" Sukollawat Kanarot is among the stars.

As detailed over on my other blog, other movies in Thai cinemas include the Documentary Club release of All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, which came out last week. This week's offerings include The Huntsman: Winter's War and the South Korean adventure drama The Himalayas, which is presented in the 270-degree True Cinema X at the EmQuartier mall in Bangkok.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Guest post: Pimpaka Towira a double winner in Hong Kong

Pimpaka Towira, second from left, at the HKIFF Awards Gala with, from left, Lam Kam‐po, Anita Piotrowska and Stephen Teo.

Keith Barclay is editor of the New Zealand film industry publication Screenz. A sponsored journalist covering Filmart, he offers Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal tailored coverage of Filmart, the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, the Asian Film Awards and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

As the Hong Kong International Film Festival closed, Thai filmmaker Pimpaka Towira took two awards at the festival's gala night on Saturday.

When Pimpaka's The Island Funeral (มหาสมุทรและสุสาน, Maha Samut Lae Susaan) had its world premiere at last year's Tokyo International Film Festival it was awarded the Asian Future Best Film Award. On Saturday evening in Hong Kong, it added the Fipresci Prize at the Hong Kong fest. The Fipresci Prize, a film-critics' honor presented at several festivals with a strong focus on Asian cinema, promotes Asian filmmaking.

Since its Tokyo premiere The Island Funeral has played a number of festivals and will head to the Buenos Aires Film Festival later this month.

As well as taking the Fipresci Award, Pimpaka picked up a second award in Hong Kong, for her short Prelude to the General (Nimit Luang). Premiered at this year's Berlinale in February, Prelude took the Jury Prize in the HKIFF's short film competition. It is a spin-off project of Pimpaka's upcoming feature The General's Secret. Portuguese director Leonor Teles' Batrachian’s Ballad won the short film competition.

The HKIFF presented awards for three competitive line-ups, Young Cinema, Documentary and Short Films, plus two other juried awards – the Fipresci and Signis awards. All together, the HKIFF presented more than 280 titles from more than 50 countries, selling more than 600,000 tickets.

This year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, the 40th edition, ran from March 21 to April 4.

Here is the complete list of HKIFF award winners:

Young Cinema Competition

  • Firebird Award: Life After Life
  • Jury Prize: Tomcat

Documentary Competition

  • Firebird Award: Behemoth
  • Jury Prize: Under the Sun

Short Film Competition

  • Firebird Award: Batrachian’s Ballad
  • Jury Prize: Prelude to the General

Fipresci Prize

  • The Island Funeral

Signis Award

  • Land of Mine
  • Commended: Truman

Friday, April 1, 2016

Salaya Doc review: The Scala

Note: An encore screening of The Scala has just been added to the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival. It's at noon on Sunday, April 3, at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

"What if we're still doing this when we're 50?"

"It would be nice to have that kind of job security."

That exchange from young downwardly mobile tech professionals in the movie Office Space came to mind as I watched The Scala last weekend, the opening film of the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival. A documentary by Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat, The Scala is an intimate and mournful portrait of Bangkok's last operating single-screen movie palace.

To put a relatable human face on the grand old lady of Siam Square, Aditya chose four theatre employees, all of whom have been working at the Scala since it opened in 1970. Like those Office Space characters, they probably never imagined they'd still be there more than 40 years later doing the same job.

Here are the characters:

  • The Caretaker – From vacuuming the carpets to totalling up the day's receipts, the Caretaker does it all. A thin man in a crisp white button-down shirt, he's generally the guy who rips your ticket as you enter. He also washes the linen headrest covers, by hand. Remember that next time you think about wiping your popcorn-grease hands there, you slob. And the Caretaker is never very far away. He's always watching. After two marriages, he now resides with his true love, the Scala, and stays in an apartment on the cinema's roof.
  • The Manager – Phuangthong Siriwan was put to work in her uncle's theatre when she was a young woman. Now with a bobbed mop of grey hair, she still carries a youthful gleam in her eyes, a bright spark to let folks know someone's there. She frets over the chipped marble in the Scala's signature curving double staircase, which has become worn under the billions of feet that have made their ascent to movie heaven.
  • The Technician – The lights in the marquee. He keeps them lit. The sound in the speakers. He makes sure it's heard clearly. He's the guy behind the guy who ensures the Scala is running smoothly. He's also responsible for keeping the Scala's sister cinema the Lido spruced up. Take note of the new lights on the sign as you pass by next time.
  • The Projectionist – Showing movies off a hard drive or satellite network just isn't as much fun as spooling up films for the projector, says the Projectionist, a thin, shaven-headed man who has weathered the recent changes in movie-going technology. He has to make a couple trips back and forth from his spiffy new digital system to the office to get a password to show the film. You will know his pain. Another resident of the Scala, with his own designated sleeping corner, he takes solace in his early morning bicycle rides around Siam Square.

A highlight of The Scala is the cleaning of the five-tier chandelier, a laborious process that requires all hands on deck. You won't believe how they do it, and it's something you have to see to believe.

Running a concise 50 minutes, The Scala overviews the history of the place, which opened in 1970 with the 70-millimetre John Wayne western The Undefeated. It joined a trio of similarly grand Siam Square movie palaces operated by Pisit Tansacha and his Apex group, the Siam, which mysteriously burned in the 2010 anti-government protests, and the Lido, which caught fire in 1991 and was converted to the three-screen multiplex we know today.

Back when the Scala opened, movie-going was something special, and all 1,000 seats in the theatre were filled with patrons, who had dressed in their finest for the evening out. Over the years, the number of seats has shrunk to around 700, with most of the seats taken out to accommodate a large stage that's used for concerts, talk shows and special events, which help supplement the Scala's dribs and drabs of income from movies.

Anywhere else, the Scala probably would have closed ages ago, but with the Tansacha family earning its bones from the Nong Nooch Gardens tourist attraction in Pattaya, the Scala and Lido remain in business out of sheer devotion to the theatres themselves and the loyal staff.

But there's a sinking feeling among the staff, as well as the filmmaker, that the Scala's days are numbered. After all, movie can be watched on phone screens, or at fancy mall multiplexes, all over the country. Siam Square landlord Chulalongkorn University has indicated it is keen on tearing down the old cinemas in order to build more shopping malls, though currently there's an agreement in place to keep Lido and Scala running through 2018.

Part of the Power of Asian Cinema documentary series commissioned for last year's Busan International Film Festival by KBS Busan television, The Scala is an enduring portrait of an endangered landmark. Following the one-off screening at Salaya Doc, Aditya says he's sold The Scala to TrueVisions' Thai movie channel, so keep an eye out for it there later in the year. He also reckons he'll one day screen The Scala at the Scala.

"My real hope is that one day, if the Scala does indeed close, I would hope they can show this at the farewell party," he says.

Related posts:

(Cross-published in The Nation)