Credits roll on Phnom Penh’s last old-style cinema

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The exterior of the now-defunct Ciné Lux on Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

As large sections of old Phnom Penh are bulldozed to make way for new development, the fate of some of the city’s notable architecture hangs in the balance. Post Property tracks the fate of the city’s movie theatres and visits the Ciné Lux theatre on Norodom Boulevard, a classic colonial structure now destined for oblivion.

High property and land prices in Phnom Penh have raised the question of whether the architectural gems that dot the city can be preserved. One building on the chopping block is the 650-seat Ciné Lux cinema, which sits on the southwest corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 154.

Built in 1938 in art deco style and designed by French architect Roger Colne, the purpose-built Ciné Lux favoured screening ghost movies (some say it’s haunted by a patron who found a horror movie too scary and died of a heart attack during a show). It closed its doors for the final time earlier this year. Since then, uncertainty has surrounded its eventual fate. Most of the city’s old cinemas have been converted to other entertainment uses, such as restaurants, clubs, karaoke bars, or snooker halls.

One researcher has been following the fortunes of the city’s old movie theatres. Architect Hun Sokagna is one of the founders of the the Roung Kon project, which began researching Phnom Penh’s 33 cinemas last year. She and her six colleagues found that almost all the old cinemas have undergone a change of use.

“Of the old cinemas, Ciné Lux was very long-running. As an architect, I feel regret and pain when I see old cinemas being demolished or changed to a new form,” said Sokagna.

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Architect Hun Sokagna. Vandy Muong

The Ciné Lux theatre has not yet been refurbished and its interior has a ghostly feel, with banks of empty seats in the dark auditorium and posters in the foyer advertising films that have been and gone and are now available on Netflix or DVD.

The Roung Kon project aims to produce a book on the history and use of Phnom Penh’s old movie theatres. “Despite the refurbishment of older cinema constructions, we try to piece together the architectural history of cinemas in Phnom Penh and the provinces, and conduct interviews with older people who used to frequent them to document and record evidence,” said Sokagna.

“I hope that when it comes to the maintenance and promotion of these old constructions, the government and the people are turning towards preserving the heritage of the country in the same way as they have with Angkor Wat,” she added.

Sokagna says that the Ciné Lux theatre is not just a place for entertainment, but a name of a location. If people don’t write or research about it, Cambodia will lose a sense of its urban history.

She also believes that as far as possible, architecturally important interiors need preservation. “If the old cinema remains old, with a bad smell and old equipment, we should renovate and maintain it in its original shape without replacing it with a new construction. We know that each country is always trying to be up-to-date, but if old architecture is maintained, cities look better.”

Phnom Penh’s new glass and steel high-rises are impressive, and they’re built to exacting modern standards. This can make it hard to preserve older, low-rise structures in central locations commanding high land prices. Developers have for some years ignored Phnom Penh’s unwritten planning rule, not to build any constructions higher than Wat Phnom. This makes it harder to preserve the city’s low-rise, French-colonial feel.

Sokagna believes an alternative location for high-rise buildings should be zoned, as Paris has done with La Défense. “I want to keep what we have and build new buildings in a new place. Since 2000, many old buildings have been demolished and replaced with high-rises.”

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The cinema’s 650-seat auditorium is said to be haunted by a dead patron. Vandy Muong

In many ways, the Roung Kon project is a race against time. “Because of the love and desire to preserve the colonial-age cinemas, the team and I volunteered to research and mark their locations before they disappeared,” said Sokagna. “Old architectural constructions are important because they are the legacy that older generations leave, whether it was a good legacy or not.”

She expressed her distress at the city’s disappearing architecture. “Buildings are being destroyed. This is difficult to prevent because of the development trend. We feel nothing but sadness, but we still carry on with our work.”

Mao Ayuth, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Information, was himself a filmmaker before he joined the government. He said cinemas were a key part of urban communities. “The cinema is a place where people come together.I produced a Khmer film that screened in the cinemas in Phnom Penh in 1972. A lot of people supported it.”

Ayuth accepts that most old cinemas have been the victims of changing trends in society. Tight margins make cinemas much less profitable than other types of land use, while malls now boast comfortable, air-conditioned movie theatres and have several screens to cater for differing tastes. There’s no capital available to invest in cinema renovation. “Everything must be developed and upgraded in accordance with the social situation and trends. But the love of cinemas and the desire to preserve them are always there, and it’s to be regretted when cinemas disappear.”