By PARINYAPORN PAJEE
Bangkok's cinephiles with a love for tradition will no doubt be shedding tears tomorrow, as Lido Multiplex in Siam Square screens its last films before closing for good.
Viewer numbers have been up in recent days as Thais and long-time Bangkok expats have flocked to Bangkok’s “cinema paradiso” to bid farewell to the end of an era.
One mother brought her two teenage kids to one showing, telling The Nation that the teens wanted to experience “old style” cinema just once before it disappeared for good. But she added that even though they don’t live far from Siam Square, the family favoured the modern Paragon Cineplex over the old-fashioned Lido.
Siam, Lido and Scala theatres in Siam Square are all part of the Apex chain, which leases the land they occupy from Chulalongkorn University. Opened on June 27, 1968, two years after its sister Siam cinema, and premiering with the Western “Guns for San Sebastian” (“Suek Sebastian”), Lido quickly became a popular venue for Bangkokians to watch films, especially as Siam Square grew into a centre for both shopping and fashion. A fire closed the cinema for a while in 1993 and Apex decided to remodel the 1,000-seat theatre into a three-screen multiplex before opening it again in 1996.
Lido Cinema manager Ubol Klarythong, who has witnessed plenty of ups and downs during his 50-year career with Apex, says that he is counting down to the closure.
“I’ll wear the yellow suit on May 31. My wife has already mended and cleaned it for me,” says the 71-year-old manager. The yellow suit has been the uniform of ticket collectors of the Apex theatres for five decades and become something of a logo. Ubol, who started work as a ticket collector at Lido in 1968, has kept his yellow suit even though he was promoted to manager years ago.
“I always knew my last day would come, either because I chose to retire or the cinema itself closed. I didn’t know which would happen first but I would much have preferred to retire than to see the end of this cinema. I was shocked when I heard the news a few months ago,” says Ubol, who will spend the rest of his days at home.
Another veteran is Sarot Sookproa, aka Ae, whose voice is instantly recognised by callers phoning to ask about showtimes. The popular operator, who always has a witty and fun response to questions, is a former DJ who switched to the cinema because of his mother. “She asked me to stay with her and that changed my life forever,” says Sarot, adding that he doesn’t know yet what his future will hold but hopes he’ll be able to continue working at Apex’s last cinema Scala. “I love working here, everyone is like family,” he says.
Now 51, Sarot has been with Lido for more than 10 years. He admits he was hesitant about taking the job at first but now can’t imagine any other career. Indeed, he does more than answer the phones. He’s also the gatekeeper of the Apex office on the third floor of the cinema and deals with everyone from film companies to clients who lease space. He also has to watch every movie screened at Lido so he can give information to anyone who phones in.
“They come regularly to Lido and some of them become telephone friends. I don’t ask their names but I remember their voices. Many of them often ask me to set a schedule that will allow them to see three or four movies in one day, as they live far away and don’t have time to come here often,” he says.
And now some of his phone pals are coming to meet him in person. “It is a great moment and I am very happy working here. They are like my family. I don’t want the cinema to close down,” says Sarot.
Rumours have circulated in recent years that Scala, the only standalone theatre left in Thailand, would close because Chulalongkorn University didn’t want to extend lease. Every time there appears to be some truth to the rumour, movie fans come out to protest. But now a compromise has finally been reached, with Chula and Apex agreeing to close Lido on May 31 and extend the life of Scala.
While Apex theatres draw students and movie lovers to watch blockbusters, Lido has gradually morphed into a cinema for alternative films, Asian movies and festival favourites. It is also one of the few theatres to show independent Thai films as well as host film students’ showreel events,
“For me, probably the most memorable moment is when the cinema showed “McKenna's Gold”, which ran for more than eight months. Tickets were always sold out and we were busy everyday,” recalls Ubol.
In their heyday, the Apex cinemas had around 140 staffs working at the three venues. Today it has half that number and unlike other companies, Apex has no retirement programme in place, leaving the staff, most of whom are 50 and over, in the lurch.
Lido’s switch to the multiplex model coincided with the birth of the multiplex era but the cinema never enjoyed the same success as the newer venues. Ubol says that in 1997, Lido was in crisis, viewers weren’t coming and showtimes had to be cancelled due to lack of audiences. The situation improved when South Korean and Japanese movies began screening at Apex cinemas. These movies were on limited release and showed in the original language with subtitles rather than being Thai dubbed.
Korean movies like “Il Mare”, “The Classic” and Japanese films like “Nobody Knows” and “Be With You” proved the true saviours of the cinema.
Krittayanon Chamnanpanich from Mongkol Cinema, who has brought many Japanese movies to the Lido including “If Cats Disappear from the World” is both disappointed and annoyed at the closure though she acknowledges that the cinema has been struggling for the past few years.
“It’s a business cycle but the closure means that we are going to lose our movie culture. Multiplex theatres are spoiling the way we used to operate. For example, when a movie is in high demand such as Marvel’s superhero outings, the multiplex theatres set the best showtime schedules at the cost of local or art films, which are screened in off-peak periods. Social media have also changed behaviour in that they push viewers into watching a film so they can join the crowd and talk about it online. Their interest in watching alternative movies wanes and so Lido cannot survive in business,” she says.
But Mongkol Film is at least saying goodbye to this bastion of Asian films in style.
“Tonight, At Romance Theatre” and “Kids on the Slope” will be shown at 6.45pm and 8.45pm on Thursday (May 31). The former is particularly well suited to the farewell as it chronicles the romance between a movie director and the princess in a black-and-white film and references the old movie theatres that were forgotten when television was introduced to Japanese society.
The film will be preceded by a brief talk while after the screening, the audience will have a chance to take photographs with the yellow-suited “Lido Guys”.
The curtain will fall on Lido with “Kids On the Slope” and a farewell to the staff.
Ubol and Sarot will be around to welcome customers both old and new.
They expect to spend another four months clearing out cinema and finding out their fate.