Thailand is a nation of striking contrasts, and this is reflected in everything from its culture to its people to its food. That gracious/rowdy, sweet/spicy combo is a big part of its appeal for visitors, even those of us who live just next door (geographically speaking). Bangkok is one place in particular where it’s near impossible to be bored. Whatever your persuasion or motivation, there’s always something for everyone in this jam-packed, thriving and slightly mental metropolis.
Although my latest trip to the Thai capital was solely for work purposes, I made it a point to schedule some downtime. I’d been wanting to cover Bangkok in a “Moviegoing Around The World” piece for some time now, but never found the opportunity. It’s important because this city has some of the best cinemas in Asia, if not the world. I kid you not. More on that in a bit.
It just so happened that the day I touched down was the very same day the Thai military decided to stage a coup, effectively shutting down government and bringing political temperatures down a few degrees after months of simmering public anger. Not that anyone traveling in and out of the country that day would’ve had the slightest clue, as this was probably the most low-key military takeover ever. On the news there was mention of armies in tanks patroling the downtown shopping district, but as far as the locals were concerned this was pretty much life as usual. In fact, I was told of tourists taking selfies with the soldiers and their tanks. Which goes to show that even in times of national crisis the Thais manage to be mindful of their most important income generator.
This round, I decided to check out a multiplex I’d never been to before. The ones in the city-centre are uniformly excellent, by the way. But why put up with crowded public transport and sweaty selfie-ing tourists when there was a picture house a literal stone’s throw from my hotel? So I took a leisurely stroll down Sukhumvit 24 to a new-ish mall named The Emporium. On level 8, I discovered SFX Cinema.
There was absolutely no queue at the ticketing counter, which wasn’t surprising as it was a week day. Bad for business, good for me. I didn’t think there’d be a long line for the film I wanted anyway. “Enemy” was a must-watch for more than one reason. Billed as a “psycho-sexual thriller”, director Denis Villeneuve’s anticipated follow-up to his brilliant “Prisoners” had been predictably banned in Malaysia. So this would be my only chance to catch it on the big screen.
A single ticket cost me 220 Baht, or approximately RM22. That’s a good 50% more expensive than the average ticket prices in Malaysia, and going by the Thai standard of living this is quite costly for them as well. I will say that the SF Group at least puts in a lot of thought and care into making their cinemas look posh and — this is important — well-maintained. Everything was shiny, smooth and squeaky clean, from the foyer to the ticketing counter. To the left of the entrance was an attached cafe called the Garden Lounge, for patrons to chill out before showtime. The soft lighting and laid-back jazz in the background reminded me of those business-class executive lounges at international airports. I was tempted to plonk myself down on one of their cushy-looking sofas, but I had much more exploring to do.
Next stop, the concession stand. Now, most stands around the world tend to sell the same old overpriced junk food. Unless I come across something unusual, I usually avoid buying. The popcorn in Bangkok is one thing I always make an exception for. I ordered a small bucket of Cheesy Butter Popcorn and my first mouthful verified what my nose was telling me — this was good stuff. It was crisp, fresh and not too salty, with a generous coating of cheese to make you forget just how much you had to pay for it.
Still nomming away, I made my way past the entrance into a very long corridor. On the walls were a series of oil paintings depicting Hollywood movie stars in character like Pierce Brosnan as Bond, Russell Crowe as General Maximus in “Gladiator”, and Nicole Kidman as Satine in “Moulin Rouge”. As classy as this setup was, what with its red leather chairs and wood-paneled walls, it gave me an oddly dislocated feeling of being in the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. I half-expected a tidal wave of blood to come crashing down that corridor. I think maybe I watch too many movies, eh.
I popped into Hall 2, which was evidently one of the smaller halls meant for arthouse screenings and films nearing the end of their run. It was still a pretty decent size, and I could see that the classiness extended to the insides as well. The seats were quite comfortable, providing adequate back support while allowing a little give when I leaned back. I also noticed that I was the only one there, so I seized the chance to snap some shots. A couple of minutes later, the rest of the crowd started trickling in… all four of them. Clearly, the market for a psycho-sexual thriller starring that sleepy-eyed dude from “Brokeback Mountain” was a decidedly niche one.
I couldn’t tell you what kind of an audience the Thais are based on this outing, but I can tell you that their love for the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej or Rama IX, is unrelenting and unconditional. Before the movie started, the national anthem played and a voiceover asked us to rise to our feet. The anthem was accompanied by footage of the kindly monarch engaging with his loyal subjects through the decades, and as I glanced over at the other patrons, I could see a look of hushed reverence on their faces. This was in stark contrast to their response to the preceding ads and trailers, which were either stony indifference or light chuckles (Thai commercials can be frickin’ funny). This drew me to thoughts of my own country’s rulers, and how sadly lacking they are as true inspirational figures for the people. The Thais worship their King because of all that he has done for them. He is genuinely worthy of the adulation.
The film itself held no such respect though. About half-an-hour into the (very slow) proceedings, one of them walked out. Can’t say I blame him, as “Enemy” turned out to be one of Villeneuve’s more impenetrable works, full of weird spider symbolism and ponderous silences. Personally, I appreciated the dark, funereal tone and Gyllenhaal’s riveting dual performance as a downtrodden professor and a sleazy actor. The film also looked stunning in a 4K digital projection, complemented by rich surround sound. And at the risk of sounding sleazy myself, I enjoyed the rare chance to view a film with zero censorship. It wasn’t so much the ample full-frontal nudity that appealed to me (though that never hurts) as it was about the liberating feeling of being treated as a mature audience. Thailand is a Buddhist country and has its fair share of conservative values, but the powers that be are wise enough to differentiate between art and obscenity. It’s this mindset among others that has led to a filmmaking industry far ahead of Malaysia’s. Sadly, it’s a lesson I don’t believe our local authorities will ever learn.
Despite the priciness, this entire moviegoing experience offers great value, in every sense of the word. Now that I’ve officially covered Seoul, South Korea I have something to compare against in the context of this series… and I’d rank the Land of Smiles above the Land of Kimchi. What’s especially attractive about going to the movies here is that you’re made to feel like it’s a proper outing, the way it used to be back in the good ol’ days of yore. Ask your parents.
So whenever you’re in Bangkok and looking for some wholesome entertainment, be sure to visit your nearest ‘rong-nang’. Just watch out for those legendary traffic jams. Or the occasional coup.
In case you missed it, here’s Moviegoing Around The World: Seoul, South Korea.
(Note: 1st pic copyright Captainkimo. All other pics copyright Electroshadow.com)