Ode to Cinema: An Interview with Wattanapume Laisuwanchai on 'Phantom of Illumination' @SGIFF

This is something for cinema lovers and CINEMA lovers, in the most literal sense of the word. There have been unforgettable films about movie theatres like Tsai Ming Liang’s ode to an old Taipei cinema Goodbye, Dragon Inn, as well as Brilliante Mendoza’s Serbis, about movie theatre where cinema goers and prostitutes (and a goat!) cross lines. But here is a daring, different and bizzare take on a movie theatre. Emerging young Thai filmmaker Wattanapume Laisuwanchai explores the dearth of contemporary cinema in this experimental piece called Phantom of Illumination.

Rith, a projectionist who worked at the now defunct Thonburi Rama cinema in Thailand, finds himself restless following its closure in 2013. He hangs around the venue day and night even though the last curtain has already been drawn. We catch glimpses of him watching the latest movie releases on pirated DVDs, cleaning up after empty cinema halls and getting drunk. But as he eventually heads home to a wife and daughter whom he hardly knows at a rubber plantation, he begins to find hope in life again. The desolate nature of time and its effect on cinema (and its inhabitants) is increasingly felt not only by age-old cinephiles, but also by sensitive young filmmakers and artists like Wattanapume Laisuwanchai. Here, Laisuwanchai mixes documentary footages with an otherworldy storyline narrated by Rith’s wife, evoking the fine line between fact and fiction.

We pose 10 questions to filmmaker Wattanapume Laisuwanchai in this interview with SINdie about the film.

What gave you the idea to marry fiction and documentary footages in this work?

The main character in this film has an interest in Buddhist philosophy, especially about the mind power mechanism. The film is also about cinema and change, which is difficult to tell the story by using only the documentary form. I needed to find other ways that I can show the abstract idea of Rith in my film and as a visual artist, I did not want to stick with the documentary style storytelling.

How did the story of Rith's wife come about?
After I filmed Rith for a while, I learnt that he has a family, so in the film, I included the point of view of his wife, to show another side of his life.

What other cinemas in Thailand have closed down whose stories need to be told?

In my point of view, no other cinemas in Thailand that have been closed down are interesting enough, but when I was starting my research before making ‘Phantom of Illumination’, another cinema that I was interested in is ‘Scala Theater’. Scala has been in business for more than 40 years. It is big and one of the most beautiful theater of Thailand. The cinema is in Siam Square, which is the shopping area owned by Chulalongkorn University. The cinema is at risk for demolition as the landlord wants to turn it into a shopping mall. Thai director Aditya Assarat has made the film called ‘The Scala’, to record the story of this cinema.

What is the place of the cinema in the public lives of the Thai people?

Nowadays people will watch films in multiplex, mostly in shopping malls. We have arthouse cinema, but there are very few of them.

What was the hardest part of making this film, and consequently, what is the easiest part?
The difficulty in making this film is to look for an angle in making a film about movie theater as there are many filmmakers who have made films about this theme before. I had to find ways not to make this film become a cliche like longing for the lost cinema or nostalgia. After I followed Rith for a while, I found something interesting about  him, which is his profession, the story between him and his family and his point of view towards the world which was backed up the Buddhist philosophy to explain things. From the original idea of telling the story of the movie theater, I changed it into telling the story of Rith, and his story has so much influence on the film and its storytelling.

What inspired you to make this film?

When I was young, my father always took me to watch movies in stand alone, but when I grew up, it has disappeared. I am the last generation of people who have seen them, and the generation after me may not know about this change. My childhood has become an inspiration in making this film to record the history that no one remembers and the lives of people who worked in those movie theaters.

If all the cinemas in Thailand are to suddenly close down, what do you hope would be the public's response?

I want everybody to see the importance of these movie theaters, especially the government who has a lot of money, and can support the lives of some old movie theaters. However, our country is not a country that cares much about old architecture. Our people don’t feel that it is valuable. So not only do these movie theaters disappear, but most of the old community in the country are being destroyed and turned into commercial area.

As nowadays stand alone movie theaters and 35 mm film projectionists have disappeared from  Thailand, movies become a perfect format in recording this change, and to keep it forever. I hope the the film ‘Phantom of Illumination’ will help people to know more about these stand alone movie theaters and other disappearing culture.
What do you wish to portray of the life of the cinema people?

In film business, there are many people; ushers, ticket sellers, projectionists. One day, when the screening format changed into digital, these people will lose their job. No one will know what will happen to them after the cinema closes. That is the reason I focus on the character of Rith after the closure of the cinema, to show the effect of the change on these small people.

What do you wish for the public to know about cinemas?

Standalone  movie theaters were popular in Thailand. 30 years ago, we had more than 140 stand alone movie theaters. Nowadays, these building are demolished and turned into shopping malls, or some of them are deserted. In ‘Phantom of Illumination’, not only do I want to show the lives of people who used to work in this cinema, but I also want to record the architecture and interior design of these movie theaters; curtain, screen, chairs, which next generation of people won’t be able to see them.

What do you feel are the most potent powers of the cinema?

As we are in the social media era, we can watch film on streaming sites. People nowadays spend their time in private area. We are losing our connection with each other. To watch films in cinema is an activity that can teach us about living together in public space. The cinema can connect the audience who come to see films with each other, and can connect them with the world in the films.  

Filmmaker Wattanapume Laisuwanchai

Interview by Alfonse Chiu

Screening Details

26 Nov, Sun / 7:00 PM / The Arts House
Singapore Premiere
Thailand / 2017 / 69min / Thai
*Filmmaker in Attendance
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