- Monsoon-whipped August isn't the ideal month for outdoor cinema. Yet last week Sirichai Kiatmingmongkol, a member of the 40-year-old Sor Or Nor outfit, one of the country's oldest operators of roofless flick shows, lugged his metal-cased projector and 10-metre-tall screen to a riverside lot in Bang Po.
At a recent outdoor screening, a projectionist works with the beast that exhales light.
The gig was part of the community fete to celebrate HM the Queen's birthday, so Sirichai put up a triple-bill: the first film was a Thai-dubbed version of Hollywood's cut-throat car rage drama Death Race (Jason Statham as a convict/race car driver), followed by two Thai movies, Krob Krua Tua Dum (literally, ''The Black Family'', with actors doing black faces), and the highlight, Ong-Bak 2. Things started rolling at 7:30pm, as the projector beamed lights and images through 35mm film print, valiantly competing with the interminable glare of tungsten street lamps as the audience _ about 30, though the space was large enough to seat a few hundred _ were hypnotised by the primal magic of motion pictures played on the vast, life-magnifying screen.
''Everybody has already seen Death Race and Ong-Bak 2 on VCD, don't you think?'' Sirichai said as he prepared the next reel of the American film.
''In truth we haven't had that many people coming to see the movies in the last four, five years. But we still
have customers. We're still hired to screen at weddings, funerals, ordination ceremonies and Chinese shrine worshippings. Sure it wasn't as exciting as before, but we can still keep going."
Sirichai - as well as his Sor Or Nor family - has witnessed the peak days of open-air cinema when the activity was a major cultural and entertainment event for Thais in the provinces as well as in Bangkok, and now he is on the verge of seeing his craft - the old craft of making cinema a collective moment and mass spectacle - being vanquished by the convenience of individual-obsessed digital technology.
Anybody can put a disc in the tray of a DVD player, but very few can roll a precious 35mm film through the many locks and machinations of a movie projector. If that sounds nostalgic in an age when an entire movie can be stored on a thumb drive or a cellphone - then it certainly is.
Two decades ago Sirichai worked as a "checker" for a movie distribution company that supplied films to outdoor screens in the rural areas. In those days before multiplexes and videos, Sirichai's job was to carry suitcases containing rolls of films to travelling projectionists who wandered provincial Thailand with their canvas screens. They'd put up a screen in a village - nang klang plaeng, "movies in the middle of the field" - and advertised the titles to be shown. Viewers were charged five or 10 baht, and the revenue was split between Sirichai's company and the projectionist.
Outdoor screenings were once the only chance for children to see movies. Now it's a curiosity.
It must be noted here that the legendary genesis of the kingdom's open-air cinema, however, is known as nang khai ya, "movies that sell medicine."
It was a rather ingenious concept that would later be deemed exploitative by the health agency. Back then, local pharmaceutical firms ran their own travelling outdoor-movie units. Their projectionists roamed the back roads of the country, erecting screens and showing films along the way. During the screening, when a movie paused for the projectionist to change a roll of film, their MC would start peddling cough syrups, potions for female troubles, or cure-all painkillers. Sometimes they wouldn't resume the movie until someone in the audience, anxious to get on with the drama on screen, agreed to buy one of their products. Later the government issued a law banning the practice.
After leaving the checker post, Sirichai started working with his family as a projectionist. Sor Or Nor was founded by his uncle, Serm Kiatmingmongkol, and the outfit has weathered tough competition during the heyday of outdoor cinema, when some operators would unveil the latest gimmicks to seduce viewers, such as a giant 20-metre-tall screen or a cinemascope projection. But then came the VCR, VCDs, DVDs, and the proliferation of cineplexes that changed the movie-going habit of the people in this land (not to mention around the world).
Posters advertising the programme at a screening in Bang Po.
Still, open-air screenings continue at weddings, funerals and temple fairs. Sor Or Nor, Sirichai's family company, now screens movies at different events in Bangkok and the outskirts. "Each region in the country is 'covered' by different companies, and usually we can't cross into their zones. That won't look good," he said.
"In some provinces, outdoor screenings have even grown into a kind of all-out entertainment fair. The operators would use really, really powerful loudspeakers and sometimes the truck they use to transport the equipment doubles as a dancefloor equipped with disco lights, where people dance before the movie starts. In Bangkok where we work, things haven't gone that wild."
In truth, the situation in the capital is a little subdued - and a tad odd, since Sirichai sometimes finds himself screening films not to live audiences but to invisible deities. This is because Sirichai's screening outfit now does most of the business with Buddhist temples and Chinese shrines.
A child arrives at the screening on a cyclo with his father. The audience for outdoor screenings have dwindled after VCDs and DVDs have become so cheap.
"In Chinese communities in the sois in Bangkok, there usually are Chinese shrines, and every year the people in the sois will organise an annual worshipping rite to the gods," he said.
"Besides food offerings, they always include outdoor movies as part of the rite. This is very popular during the end of the year and the start of the year. So we would be hired to go to a little soi and put up a four-metre-tall screen - our smallest - to show movies technically for the gods of the shrine.
"As a rule, we have to screen a short Chinese opera film first, since the gods are Chinese. And after that we screen regular Thai or American films - Thai-dubbed, of course. Every time there aren't that many people coming to see the movies, we're getting used to that now."
Even at the riverside fair on August 12 - a special occasion much more high-profile than a mini-show at a shrine - the audience was pretty thin. Yet to many children and passers-by, the sight of a projectionist putting a roll of film into a projector, that clunky beast that exhales light, must have inspired a peculiar feeling. To us, movies have increasingly become an abstract entity, a signal wafted through the air or a set of coded data stored in a disc. Outdoor cinema, with the analog machines and live projectionists exposed for all to see, remains a physical matter, a magic made tangible, and it's much more dramatic, more spectacular this way.
The projection team manually work with rolls of films.
Too bad that the same sight may inspire the yearning for a forgotten era, even the fear that soon this "classic" practice will be forever lost, now that even multiplexes are turning to digital projection. To Sirichai and his team, however small their audience has become, they still don't buy into the idea that this is their last picture show.
Story by KONG RITHDEE Photos by ANUSORN SAKSEREE