Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 14



The previous post on this blog had a Korean theme.  So too will this one.


For the past half-dozen years, I’ve lived in the neighbourhood of Wellawatta’s busy Savoy Cinema.  At times, though, I’ve wondered why it doesn’t call itself the Marvel Cinema, seeing as for months on end its screens seem to show nothing but movies featuring superheroes who originated in the pages of Marvel comics: Ironman, Thor, Captain America, Spiderman, Dr Strange, Black Panther, etc.


Actually, as Marvel was bought up by Disney a decade ago, and for most of the rest of the time, the Savoy has been dominated by Disney films, most recently Dumbo, Frozen II and The Lion King (all 2019) and by Star Wars movies – a franchise that, yes, now belongs to Disney too – the cinema might more accurately call itself the Disney Cinema.


To be fair, the Savoy occasionally airs Bollywood movies and homegrown ones like the recent Sinhala disaster-drama movie Tsunami (2020) as well.  But as you pass it and see what’s advertised on its hoardings, you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s devoted almost exclusively to family-friendly Hollywood fare from the House of Mouse, which has now annexed the House of Stan Lee and the House of George Lucas.


Not that I want to knock the cinema too much for that.  It’s left me with some memorable images over the years.  The release of 2019’s long-awaited superhero movie Avengers: Endgame coincided with the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, which meant that cinemas here – like every other venue where people gathered in large numbers – were closed for several weeks.  Thus, while cinema audiences elsewhere in the world could enjoy the climactic movie in the Avengers series, it was a sight unseen for Sri Lankans.  I thought it was a heartening sign that things were returning to normal when, one morning a few weeks after the atrocity, I left my apartment and saw a massive queue of Sri Lankan kids extending from the cinema entrance and halfway back along the street.  Yes, the Savoy had finally reopened its doors and every nerd in Colombo had rushed there to catch the very first showing of Avengers: Endgame.  (Everyone who went by was shaking the hand of the proud nerd who’d managed to bag first place in the queue.)


And the day before 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker opened at the Savoy, I was initially alarmed when I saw two middle-aged Sri Lankan men having a fight on the pavement outside with what looked like a pair of swords.  Then I realised they were actually wielding plastic lightsabres and were apparently trying to re-enact one of the famous duels from the Star Wars films.  Bless.


Anyway, the Savoy has just done something refreshing.  I was walking past it the other day when I discovered that it’d put on a fancy promotional display in its entrance for a new film it was showing – not the latest thing to roll off the Disney / Hollywood conveyor belt, but the 2019 South Korean movie Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed and deliciously morbid black comedy / social satire about a hard-pressed South Korea family, the Kims, who gradually infiltrate the household of a wealthy family, the Paks.  Pretending not to know one another, let alone be related to one another, the Kims secure lucrative jobs one by one as the Paks’ servants and children’s tutors, whilst ruthlessly usurping anybody who’s employed in those jobs already.  The plot takes a simultaneously funny, tragic and bloody twist when one of the people whom the Kims push aside in order to win the Paks’ confidence turns out to be harbouring a bizarre secret.


I like how the Savoy’s Parasite promotion has life-sized cut-outs of the lovable but sneaky Kims positioned on one side of the entrance and cut-outs of the well-meaning but unintentionally patronising Paks positioned on the other.



No doubt Parasite broke the Disney / Marvel / Hollywood stranglehold over the Savoy because of the praise and recognition it’s received.  Not only did it win the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but, of course, it snapped up a slew of awards at the recent Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Best Director.  So although it’s fashionable to slag off the Oscars these days, they obviously retain some clout in South Asia.


I expect Parasite to draw enthusiastic audiences in Colombo because Korean culture seems to be pretty trendy in Sri Lanka nowadays.  A while back, I was talking to a young Sri Lankan guy who told me that South Korea has replaced the Gulf as the destination where people his age want to go to make money – he himself was taking Korean language lessons every weekend to improve his chances of finding work there.  And the other week, my own work took me to a school in the rural town of Eheliyagoda where I was intrigued to see, after school hours, an extra-curricular Korean language lesson being delivered to a motley group of Sri Lankan schoolkids between the ages of about 12 and 17.


Plus there are now plenty of restaurants offering Korean cuisine, in Colombo at least.  In my previous post, I mentioned the traditional-style Han Gook Gwan on Havelock Road.  I should also give a plug for the excellent (and super-friendly) Café the Seoul on the Kollupitiya stretch of Galle Road.


When your neighbourhood collapses


Late on the morning of May 18th I was at my Colombo workplace when I was telephoned by my partner, who was back in our apartment.  She said that in the mid-morning she’d heard a cacophony of sirens – police cars, ambulances and / or fire engines – on the street outside.  Then, soon after that, she’d received a call from our local electrician, who’d been in the apartment the day before to check an electrical fault in a couple of our wall-sockets.


The electrician’s reason for ringing today was nothing to do with the condition of those sockets.  He’d just heard a news-flash saying that a building in our neighbourhood had collapsed and he wanted to make sure we were okay.


Reports about what’d happened were already appearing on the Internet.  It turned out that part of a big banquet / party / wedding reception complex called the Excellency, which stands behind the Savoy Cinema on Galle Road, had caved in.  The building’s façade remained intact but its back half, where some new floors were being constructed on top of an existing section, had suddenly fallen like the proverbial house of cards.  Trapped in the rubble were both members of the Excellency’s staff who’d been in the completed bit at the bottom and builders who’d been working in the under-construction bit at the top.


Not only were the emergency services soon on the scene to begin rescue efforts, but members of the Sri Lankan army were drafted in too.  By bad luck, shortly after the disaster happened, it started raining heavily and Colombo endured what was probably its wettest day so far of 2017, which meant that the rubble and dust that the rescuers were working in must have turned into a quagmire.


By the day’s end we’d heard reports that 23 people had been pulled out of the debris and taken to hospital and one person had later died of their injuries.  The bodies of two more victims were to be recovered from the flattened building over the next few days.



I walked past the place the following evening.  The soldiers were still present – indeed, one off-duty group of them sat and gazed out forlornly at the rain from the back of a truck parked next to our apartment building.  The stretch of street at the front of the Excellency had been sealed off with big white-and-red traffic cones, though the police guards posted there were tolerant of pedestrians walking through the closed-off area so long as they kept walking and didn’t make nuisances of themselves.


Considering what’d happened, the Excellency’s façade showed surprisingly little sign of damage.  If you peered down the alleyway at its side, you could make out a piece of still-standing wall with a pile of rubble at its bottom and, hanging above it, a broken, twisted mess of roofing.  Meanwhile, the floor of the Excellency’s front lobby was slathered with dried muddy footprints left by rescue-workers going to and coming from the devastation at the rear.  And one of its front windows had disintegrated and covered the street below in pieces of blue-tinted glass – it looked like there’d been a snowfall and then a thaw and now there was a thick slush full of lumps of melting ice.  At first, I thought that window might have been smashed by the rescuers, wanting to get some bulky rescue equipment into and through the building; but then, seeing how all the broken glass was lying outside rather than inside, it occurred to me that the window had probably been knocked out by the shock-waves from the collapse.



The pavement in front of the entrance to the Savoy Cinema was cordoned off with ropes and the building was atypically dark and silent.  A sign in the door said simply: “We are closed today.”


To see the collapsed building itself, you had to go onto the bridge where Galle Road crosses the Kirillapone Canal.  From there, you could view a giant, crumpled hole among the row of buildings backing onto the canal.  Debris and rubble oozed like a semi-solid effluent down into the canal-water below.  The whole, sad sight was framed between the big green fronds of the trees that grow near the bridge.



Barely had the disaster occurred than journalists got wind of the fact that the building had received inadequate planning permission.  The owner had been authorised to build three storeys by the canal – but at the time of the collapse the structure was five storeys high and the intention was to finally raise it to seven.


Initially, we’d heard rumours that the Excellency’s owner – whom, understandably, the police were keen to speak to – was ‘out of the country’.  However, on May 21st, news came through that he’d been arrested.


And without wishing to prejudice any upcoming trial, I can only say to that: “Good.”