The subject of Wattanapume Laisuwanchai’s documentary Phantom of Illumination is a humble projectionist who worked at the same Bangkok neighborhood theater for 26 years until it was closed in 2013. Yet rather than being the anticipated ode to cinema or a call for preservation, it eschews nostalgia to follow the philosophical musings of an individual cast adrift by modernization. This is not to say that those curious about the history of theatrical exhibition in Thailand won’t find points of interest here as Phantom of Illumination can be taken in tandem with Aditya Assarat’s documentary The Scala (2016) on Bangkok’s last palatial-style theater and photographer Philip Jablon’s ‘Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project’, which resulted in his book Thailand’s Movie Theaters: Relics, Ruins and The Romance of Escape (2019). However, it is best approached as a spectral rumination on the fusion that can occur between professionals and the structures in which their skills are honed.
Once among 140 standalone big screen options in Bangkok, the Thonburi Rama opened in February 1972 with The Big Boss (1971) starring Bruce Lee on the bill. Sumrith ‘Rith’ Praprakone was a farmer until the late 1980s when he moved to the capital and became an usher at the theater, soon being promoted to projectionist and taking up residence in the theater, occasionally visiting his family back in the countryside for short periods. His life story is warmly conveyed through faded photographs which also show an era of Bangkok’s movie-going in its heyday with Laisuwanchai encountering the projectionist when dwindling attendance and the unfeasible cost of upgrading to digital projection have sealed the theater’s fate. Afterwards, Rith continues living in the theater, keeping it clean, getting drunk, and generally taking refuge from a world defined by economic values that he does not share. Initially drawn to the Thonburi Rama by the chance to meet people, Rith became isolated, almost monk-like once ensconced in the projection room, finding himself on a path to enlightenment within an ostensibly escapist environment: “Death and birth happen all the time. People die and are born every day. It’s instantaneous.”
Given its lingering, ethereal observation of a theater that has been rendered obsolete but still evidences a certain charm, comparison can be made between Phantom of Illumination and Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) which was set during the final showing at an old cinema in Taipei. However, their swansongs are rather different. While the dilapidated theater in Goodbye, Dragon Inn has the honor of bowing out with a showing of King Hu’s seminal wuxia Dragon Inn (1967), the Thonburi Rama winds down with Bryan Singer’s misbegotten Hollywood fantasy Jack the Giant Killer (2013). Still, Laisuwanchai respectfully surveys the space as Rith talks about it considerately like a Wong Kar-wai protagonist addressing his evaporating bar of soap. Speaking of the projector, he says, “We run it hard all day… If it were a living person, it would cry.” If not especially enamored with the medium of cinema, Rith is at one with the crumbling structure and the archaic, if still reliable, pieces of technology that have become his ‘colleagues’. Sadly, while the theater is now able to “rest”, the able bodied and mentally attuned projectionist is simply left unemployed. His predicament arguably becomes more lamentable than that of the theater regardless of how deeply one may feel about the disappearing legacy of any national cinema culture.
The documentary has a gently haunting quality that stems from its dual ‘phantoms’. A diptych structure firstly observes Rith in the city where he haunts the closed theater, then in the countryside where the theater permeates his subconscious, triggering flights of imagination or verbal ramblings that prevent him from adjusting to rural life. It is in the second half that Laisuwanchai switches to the perspective of the retired projectionist’s wife, who works happily at a rubber plantation, and we see how Rith is unable to shake off the urban rhythms that have possessed his body.
Both parts are beautifully realized by Laisuwanchai, who has a background in advertising. His balanced use of light and shadow evokes the former glory of the Thonburi Rama, evoke its former glory as a popular neighborhood attraction while natural illumination found in the countryside is captured to transfixing, hallucinatory effect. Quietly captivating and deftly experimental, this is an appropriately dreamlike portrait of a movie theater worker who ultimately gets lost in his own illusions.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).