Lights, Camera, Laos

For decades, there's been little to do but watch the rice grown in landlocked, laid-back Laos, but a young refugee who fled the Communists is back, rolling the reels in Vientiane's old entertainment district

By Ron Gluckman /Vientiane, Laos

HAIIIEEEYAAAAGHHH!!! TUMBLING fill the screen and terrifying screams echo through a musty cinema packed with Friday's throng of kung fu-mad teens. Tomorrow, a Thai romance has top billing. Movie-wise, that's standard fare across Southeast Asia. It's a relatively new experience, though, for fun-seekers in the Laotian capital Vientiane, who only a few years ago were restricted to a diet of Soviet circus acts and communist propaganda.

"Laotians are ready for this. They crave new things," insists maverick theater manager Saychareunsouk Pathammavong, who, since reviving the classic Vientiane Theater (Odeon Rama Theater), has treated audiences to Asian and American flicks, including Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd. In that film, censors nixed the nude scenes but left the gore. "Violence is no problem here," Saychareunsouk says with a smile.

The shows gave most Laotians their first view of Stallone, whose Rambo movies are banned because of anti-Vietnamese themes. Cowboy and Indian shoot-'em-ups are also off-limits. "They're perceived as being too Western," Saychareunsouk explains.

Western influence is no stranger to 29-year-old Saychareunsouk, nicknamed Sai, who is revolutionizing entertainment in Laos. He is one of a growing number of returnees introducing Laos to Western business practices and bolstering the country's chances of an economic uplift. Sai even hopes to record and film rock acts in his own studios and show the films in his 974-seat theater -- an unthinkable idea not so long ago.

In addition, he wants to screen not only American but also European films, no mean feat in a nation lacking agreements with Western distributors. Most movies in circulation in Laos are imported on the sly from neighboring Thailand. Before Sai dubs them into Lao, he hands censors a translation of the movie script. After they have made their cuts, he pays three narrators (two men, one woman) $3.20 each to read their parts live for the entire movie. That's six times the price of the cheapest movie tickets and about double that of the most expensive.

"It's a lot of work," Sai admits, "but there is no other way to do it. We can't tape the voices, because if the film stops, it will be completely out of sync." A greater problem is the lack of dubbing equipment in Laos and the cost of acquiring such gear. As Sai points out: "Laos is a poor country."

Laos is among the world's poorest nations, with an annual per capita income of only $335, according to the United Nations. Half the national budget comes from international aid. And while the gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to continue growing at around 7 percent in 1996, the country's economic health very much depends on the vagaries of nature: Subsistence agriculture accounts for 55 percent of GDP and provides employment for 85 percent of the population. The country also has among the lowest rates of literacy and life expectancy in Asia. Only half the population over 15 can read and write, and the average life span is 51 years.

To outsiders, this might seem a strange place to try to build an entertainment empire. Not so for Sai, who wants to recreate Laos's capital of yore. "During the 1960s, Vientiane was full of life," says Sai. "There was nightlife, restaurants and boutiques. People would come at night and walk around. It was a lively place. I want to bring all that back."

Sai has another reason for his bold venture. His family built the theater as well as much of the surrounding neighborhood of Chanthabuli, once a swank shoppers' haunt. The Odeon -- built in 1968 as the centerpiece of this former entertainment district -- was a hit from day one. "If it was a good movie, like a cartoon, people would fight to get in. It was famous for its 'cold air.' " For just a few cents, local residents could escape the outside heat and relax in air-conditioned comfort.

The Odeon's decline came in the early 1970s as the war intensified between the U.S.-backed Royal Lao government and communist forces. When the communists seized power in 1975, they grabbed the Odeon, renamed it the Vientiane Theater and turned it over to rallies and propaganda sessions. The glory days of the theater were over anyway because its main audience -- intellectuals, academics and the middle class -- had fled the country.

In 1979, Sai was sent to school in the U.S., where he studied computer science and gained American citizenship. His return to Vientiane 14 years later to take over the cinema was traumatic in more ways than one. "When I first saw the theater, I almost cried," he recalls. "When I saw my old house, the neighborhood, I did cry. Everything had deteriorated so much. The neighborhood I remembered had been so special. Now it was run-down, gloomy."

The theater had been leased to a Thai businessman, with the government's blessing. "He had a contract that he claimed was signed by my father," Sai says, "but my father was very ill and this contract was very suspicious." The terms allowed the businessman to renovate, then run the theater for 15 years. Sai argued his case personally before government ministers, and won. The theater was returned to Sai's family and reopened in August 1994 after having been shuttered for nine months. Although it was again named the Vientiane Theater, most locals still call it the Odeon.

The ministers' decision could pay ample dividends for Laos, as an increasing number of refugees who have become successful overseas toy with the idea of returning to their homeland. That could help rid cash-strapped Laos of its tag as Asia's backwater. Says a United Nations Development Program worker in Vientiane: "Laotians who left 20 years ago are now doing business in Thailand, in America and in Canada. Don't forget, they were the businesspeople before. . . . They are starting to come back, and they are bringing money with them."

"Given the limited scope of present development in Laos," adds a Western aid worker in Vientiane, "this huge human resource could be the country's best hope." More than 300,000 Laotians, about 10 percent of the country's population, fled overseas to escape the fighting in the 1960s and 1970s and the repressive policies that followed. Eventually, the brain drain and moribund economy compelled the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic to try to rectify the situation. In 1986, it began to decentralize control and institute free-market reforms. Moscow's termination of aid in the late 1980s prodded Laos to open up even further. In the seven years to 1995, nearly 600 projects worth $5.6 billion were licensed, with foreign investors pledging all but $988 million.

Lured by the changes and the prospect of reclaiming their abandoned property, Laotian refugees have started trickling back. Dressed in business suits and carrying briefcases, they survey the investment potential of an economy devastated by two decades of communist rule. "About 20 percent of our business is with former Laotians coming back," says a Vientiane hotel owner.

Soumieng Deajpanyanan is one of the more ambitious returnees. The up-and-coming retail queen has put $1.5 million into a shopping center that is the beginning of a three-stage development project. It boasts air-conditioned boutiques, an international food hall -- and Laos's first escalator. Like Sai, Soumieng has had to battle a lethargic government and bureaucratic red tape. "Paperwork here is a long list of small headaches," she says. Bigger headaches, however, were construction costs (all raw materials had to be imported) and an ineffective workforce. She adds: "It's a question of training and educating not only workers and staff but retailers as well."

The importance of tenacity is something that Sai also understands well. Thus far, he has improved his chances of success simply by remaining in business. "He's surprised everyone," remarks a local reporter. "What he's done [in Vientiane] is an amazing story." Despite the government's efforts to encourage private enterprise, Sai warns of invisible impediments such as a seemingly lackadaisical approach to development. "The most important thing is to adjust to the pace of the government, which takes things slow, step by step. That's almost the slogan here, step by step."

Nevertheless, Sai has big plans. He has invested $20,000 in the Odeon and is in the process of linking up with a Thai company to turn it into Laos's most modern theater, complete with surround sound. And to fulfill his dream of transforming the Odeon once again into the focal point of Vientiane's entertainment district, Sai is drafting plans to build a shopping mall behind the theater and Laos's only bowling alley in front. (The last one closed with the departure of the Americans unofficially stationed in Laos during the war.)

But that's all in the future. For now, Sai is working on bringing a few of his favorite American film classics to Laos. Given the pace of reform in Laos, who knows? Soon Humphrey Bogart could be giving a brand-new generation of admirers a lesson in Casablanca cool. If so, in a new twist to an old line, Laotians may soon be drawling: "Play it again, Sai."


Ron Gluckman is an American journalist based in Hong Kong, who roams widely around the Asian region for numerous publications, including Asia, Inc., which ran this story in April 1996. Laos is one of his favorite countries. For additional reports by Ron Gluckman from Laos, please click on Mekong World Wonder, Smooth as Silk or Land in Slow Motion.

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