While You Were Working: 3:15pm at Rex Cinema
Photography by Marisse Caine.

The best time to watch a movie is right smack in the middle of the day.

Cinemas are not only emptier, but there’s also a liberating sense of defiance in taking two hours out of your busy work or school schedule to simply enjoy yourself.

The special effects, four walls, and huge screen of a cinema provide an important respite from reality. For that two hours, nothing matters but the alternate world you inhabit. You are a Jedi, a quirky female lead in a romantic comedy, or a superhero saving your city. In the darkness, you are no longer a bored civil servant trying to find joy in filing another year-end report.

In Singapore, we’re used to seeing cinemas in shopping malls, where they’re typically found on the uppermost floor. The moviegoing experience is, in fact, so ingrained within our local culture and childhood that it feels as though a suburban mall is not ‘legitimate’ unless it has a cinema.

As such, there’s even more fascination surrounding the old Rex Cinema, one of Singapore’s last standalone movie theatres. Over the years, there have been attempts to dig into the history of the place. Even so, little remains known about the three-storey orange and grey building showing Tamil and Hindi films that stands at Mackenzie Road.

As a child, I hung out regularly around Rex to eat the best curry puff in the world: the Selera curry puff. At Selera restaurant, right opposite the cinema, I would sit and observe the occasional patron to Rex. Even in my memory, they all seemed to be Indian.

It’s been more than 10 years since then, but Rex still appears fairly deserted today.

Something tells me it won’t be long before the cinema will need to make way for road expansion, MRT works, or a fancy condominium.

This particular afternoon, the only people milling around in front of the building are a group of customers, who disappear quickly into their respective cinema halls once doors open. I note that they’re also all Indian, which matches what I remember of the place.

A couple of boys, who are probably in their late teens, run breathlessly into Hall 2, just in time for their movie to start. The movie playing in that hall is Chennai 2 Singapore, a Tamil romantic comedy which I am told is a hit with Rex’s customers.

About half of them appear to be alone today, which I suppose is expected. After all, most people are in the office at 3pm.

Not Mr Morgan, however. I catch the retiree sitting on the sofas outside Hall 2 on the second floor, with a huge cup of soda.

Being at Rex on a weekday afternoon is the norm for him. Not just because he enjoys watching movies alone, but also because he doesn’t catch films at other cinemas. To him, there is only Rex.

Today, he’s watching Chennai 2 Singapore, which is apparently right up his alley. Our conversation is brief, but he discloses right away that he only enjoys comedies before excusing himself to proceed into Hall 2.

I spend the next five minutes reading Chennai 2 Singapore’s Wikipedia page to find out what exactly is the film’s draw. The storyline is predictable, but as with many romantic comedies, the expected narrative is probably what makes it attractive.

The waiting area outside the halls on the second floor.
It’s a lazy afternoon, made even more languid by the hot wind blowing into the main lobby, where the food and ticketing counters are located.

Vignesh, who has been manning the food counter for 2.5 years, tells me that the movies at Rex have a five-minute interval in the middle, so he gets to talk to people fairly often when they come out to get more food. As such, his job is “not really boring”.

He adds, “People in Singapore like caramel popcorn.”

Besides genuinely loving his job and his colleagues, the Indian national also likes that he gets to pick up other skills, such as changing the movie trailer on the TV screens and alternating the posters on the electronic movie poster boards.

Outside work, Vignesh’s colleagues, whom he also considers his friends, are all the company he keeps in Singapore. Perhaps they are why he doesn’t mind his seemingly long shifts from 10am to 11pm either.

Murali is in charge of tearing customers' ticket stubs.
Outside Hall 2, Murali Dharan tears the ticket stubs of those watching Chennai 2 Singapore today. His job at Rex is his first in Singapore since arriving from India, but he doesn’t have any plans to find another. Like Vignesh, he counts his blessings for being in this environment.

That said, the jovial employee also says that “the customer is your boss”. Like a true salesman, he believes in striking up conversations with customers to get to know them better.

“It’s not very nice to just tear their ticket. It’s nicer to talk to people, because they will also be nice to you. Some customers even call me to ask what movie is showing before they come.”

Speaking to Murali, it’s no wonder that his customers seem to warm up to him naturally. Having been on the job for four years, he knows and treats everyone who patronises Rex like friends and family.

For instance, I find out from Murali that Mr Morgan comes to Rex every Thursday and Friday. Mr Morgan also enjoys “fighting movies”, aside from comedy.

“A lot of security guards come here after their shift ends. This cinema is like my temple. I love it because it’s peaceful. In this job, there’s also very little hierarchy. Everyone does anything and everything in this company. I have learnt so much on this job,” says Murali.

His colleague, Kathir Resean, agrees. It’s his sixth year in Singapore and at Rex. Even though his daily routine is like clockwork, switching on the lights at 12pm and closing up at 11pm after the last movie for the day, he believes he still learns something new everyday.

Kathir has been working at Rex for two years longer than Murali.
The hallway on the third floor.
It takes me less than 10 minutes to cover the entirety of Rex. The cinema building might be small, but even then, it’s barely filled. Hallways are dim and empty, and the only semblance of activity comes from the muted sounds of the movies being screened.

Still, it’s evident that the cinema’s enduring, old-world charm keeps its customers returning.

While Rex largely contributes to the “main identity” of Singaporean Indians, Murali says that the cinema has also started to screen movies of “other minority languages” besides Tamil.

That said, Rex has been around since 1946 after World War 2. Frankly, it is unlikely to ever become a mainstream haunt for Singaporeans, because the movies shown are still not available in English and probably will never be.

Nonetheless, for a niche establishment to survive decades is testament to the power of community. It brings together people with no other avenue to satisfy their interests, and helps them remain connected to their language and culture. It also creates a sense of home for those who travel far from their families in search of a better life.

These individuals may be battling horrible bosses, overwhelming deadlines, and troubled relationships. But for two hours in the afternoon at Rex, everything is right again.

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