Rediscovering Southeast Asia's Lost Movie Houses

Phil Jablon
Fa Siam Theater in Suphanburi, Thailand

Before the multiplex, standalone cinemas played an important role in villages across Southeast Asia. An intrepid photographer is documenting the once-majestic structures before they disappear.

The transformational urban development that has brought gleaming shopping malls and cutting-edge 3D cineplexes to the booming cities of Southeast Asia — rapidly broadening Hollywood’s international distribution footprint in the process — has also eclipsed a quieter style of life. And moviegoing.

Across Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, the standalone cinema, with its one or two screens, once occupied a place of privilege in cities and villages that were oriented around lively town centers, where residents mostly walked or biked to their business, shopping and entertainment. With the arrival of cars and middle-class lifestyles, many of these midcentury architectural gems have been demolished or abandoned in favor of the air-conditioned mall-based movieplex, with all its contemporary comforts and technological enhancements.

Phil Jablon, an American sustainable development researcher and photographer, has spent the past four years attempting to document, and hopefully preserve, as many Southeast Asian standalone cinemas as possible before they’re lost to time.

“These cinemas represent a certain lifestyle,” says Jablon, who first visited Thailand, where he’s now based, more than 10 years ago. “At the time they were built, these were monumental structures in their towns, yet they had a very personal, human-scale feel to them, which has disappeared from a lot of places around the world -- especially when it comes to moviegoing. And architecturally, they’re unique; they can be beautiful, alluring, a bit creepy, or all of the above.”

Originally intending to put together a photo archive for future researchers, Jablon began traveling through Southeast Asian villages in 2010, searching for disused cinemas to shoot, with the help of whatever tip-offs he could glean from locals. He titled the endeavor “The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project” and started blogging about it. 

Thus far, he’s tracked down and shot a handful of movie houses in Vietnam, 15 in Laos, around 50 in Myanmar and at least 150 throughout Thailand (“I speak Thai, which has made things much easier there,” he says). Of the theaters he’s documented, just a handful still are in operation, while the vast majority have been shuttered and abandoned.

“As time went on and I shared my photos and story, I saw how interested people are in these buildings, and I began to realize maybe there was a place for conservation,” Jablon says. 

The project has since taken on an advocacy and preservation dimension, as he’s gotten support from the Jim Thompson Foundation and the Thai Film Archive in Bangkok, which plans to publish a coffee-table book of his photographs. Jablon also regularly gives talks and has written articles for local news outlets such as the Bangkok Post, arguing for the civic benefits of preserving traditional movie houses in urban centers, before Southeast Asia’s cities and villages fully give way to the logic of cars, box stores, malls and sprawl.

"If these places can be preserved, there are definite instances where their heritage and sense of place can be used as an anchor in the urban fabric, to encourage a more sustainable, community-oriented lifestyle," Jablon explains. He is currently working with a group of fellow conservationists to reclaim and restore a cinema in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, which they believe has the right characteristics to play such a role in the community.

Now thousands of hours and hundreds of villages into his project, Jablon says he's daunted to realize that his work is probably just beginning. "If the project is true to its name as 'the Southeast Asia Movie theater project,' I'm still very much at the start," he says. "I haven't even begun in Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore or Malaysia, which represents a huge amount of work. There are hundreds more theaters in these places -- and many of them probably won't be there for long."

To learn more about the project or to contact Jablon, visit The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project