Hoping it's not 'The End' for iconic cinema

Hoping it's not 'The End' for iconic cinema

It's hard not to peddle nostalgia when it comes to the Lido and Scala. In an age of plastic multiplexes with their garish neon signs and overpriced tickets - plus the dangerously robotic protocols of their pre-programmed staff - the two cinemas in Siam Square are a reminder of a time when movies had not been hijacked by blood-sucking consumerism. Two of the last stand-alone cinemas in Bangkok, the Lido and Scala, are movie houses, and something more: they're personal museums, the same way that movies are eternally personal. They're memory boxes, living archeological remains of this country's film-going history.

Tickets are still 100 baht there - no 250-baht or 500-baht super-opera-love nest-makeout-den-whatever seats. When you call to inquire about the programme at the Lido, a human being always answers the phone, not a pre-recorded voice of some postmodern zombie. That's the triumph of humanism in the most discreet and affecting way.

And that's why large lumps were felt in the throats of film-goers when news broke on Wednesday that Chulalongkorn University, which owns the Siam Square area, will demolish the Lido in 2014 to clear the space for ... I'm so excited I'm almost clawing my own face ... a shopping centre. In 2016, it is thought Chula will also set its jackhammers on Scala, that grand hall of pre-multiplex splendour, after the lease with Apex, the operator of the two cinemas - as well as the now-gone Siam Theatre - expires.

Kill Scala? People ... I ... will weep, really.

The shock soon turned into something else, like gloom, disbelief, romantic Marxism, and anger. Within hours the responses came pouring out; the news article on the Bangkok Post website was shared over 200 times while Facebook surfers wrote lamentations, elegies, and threw insults at Chula's decision. On a page of The Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project, a website dedicated to the preservation of old cinemas in the region, the reaction was brief and befitting: "Only corrupt minds would destroy a cultural institution like the Lido Theatre."

This shows that the concern and heartbreak are more than just a tug of nostalgia. The imminent demise of the Lido highlights the issue of urban planning, visions of the cityscape, the scarcity of cultural institutions, the importance of architecture as a form of collective history, and the politics of space, public and private, in Bangkok's super-prime location. The bitterness is especially pungent because of a widespread feeling that Chulalongkorn University, the kingdom's premier educational body, has recently dedicated much effort to real estate adventures and shopping mall construction. After Chamchuri Square, and Digital Gateway (not to mention MBK, which sits on its property) the university is now building the 1.8 billion baht Siam Square One on the site where Siam Theatre once stood. Not a library, not a park, not a futsal field; only malls - nothing but malls.

Movie-goers will mourn the fate of the Lido not only because of its antiquity, its family appeal, or its yellow-jacketed ushers as ancient as the place's unwashed curtains - they will also mourn because the cinema was one of the early champions of alternative movies. It functions as an educational venue (even though the screen's brightness is a constant point of complaint). Apex's owner and Chula's tenant, the Tansacha family, and their creative chief, the avuncular white-haired Suchart Wuttichai, have given a stage to many small Thai films that would otherwise have had no public platforms. Since the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre still struggles to provide a real screening room, the end of the Lido and probably Scala means the alternative venue (and alternative cinema?) will cling to existence only at House RCA, though the outlook there isn't that bright either.

Romantics are tempted to recall Cinema Paradiso or Goodbye Dragon Inn, movies about the death of cinema houses, told with either sentimentalism or metaphysical longing. Before Chula's death sentence, I was worried what the Lido would do when digital projection replaces film entirely. If it does happen it will require a huge investment (in France, the government subsidises small cinemas to convert to digital) to make the giant leap. There has been talk about a Save Lido Campaign, or a petition to Chula, but the immediate moral of this sad story is its absence of cultural vision, the seeming indifference to urban heritage that stores a large inventory of memories. The light hasn't gone out yet at the Lido, and we have less than two years to do something, or hope that Chula, the supposed bearer of the torch of knowledge, will change its mind and not extinguish the light.

Kong Rithdee writes about movies and popular culture for the Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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