Sunday, April 25, 2004

Reviews: Butterfly in Grey, Angel

  • Butterfly in Grey (Khang paed), directed by Sananjit Bangsapan
  • Starring Srungsuda Lawanprasert, Kanokwan Losiri, Pitchanart Sakakorn, Patharawarin Timkul
  • Theatrical release in 2002; DVD with English subtitles available
  • Rating: 2/5

Without really meaning to, I've watched a double feature of Thai films dealing with prostitution.

The first was Butterfly in Grey, a women's prison flick. It's really bad. It starts with a funeral rite of spreading someone's ashes in the river and in its long-winded way finally gets around to explaining that the woman who died was a famous author who went to prison for 10 years for killing her lover and his mistress.

Finally, in a flashback, they show the woman, Dao (Srungsuda Lawanprasert). She catches her boyfriend having passionate sex with another woman. She shoots the two of them then goes to prison. It's nasty. Dao and another newbie are assigned a space on the floor nearest the toilet in the cell, which they share with about two dozen other women. Suddenly, the two newbies are naked and rolling all over each other. Later on, there's some conflict with one of the "butch" prisoners. That is eventually resolved, but by the time this happens, another story thread has been introduced and exhausted to further confuse things.

See, without really explaining, the story goes from the prison to an apartment. It stays with this apartment stuff for a long time. I had to read about the movie afterward to figure out what was going on. The apartment scenes were after Dao got out of prison and she was living with some friends - all ladies who ran a call-girl service and were conflicted in various ways about what they did. Even outside of prison, women are caged it seems. I guess that's the message. But any social commentary was overwhelmed by the gratitutious sex scenes and the stereotypical depictions of prison life. Anyway, I'm guessing this is one of those movie titles that is purchased more for the soft-core porn content than any kind of message.

The head of the call-girl ring, Malee, was played by Patharawarin Timkul, whom I recognized as the demented Keaw from Jan Dara. I enjoyed her performance here and she helped bring the film up in my estimation.

  • Angel, directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol
  • Starring Viyada Umarin, Sorapong Chatree, Sompop Benjatikul
  • Released in 1974; released on DVD by Mangpong (out of print)
  • Rating: 4/5

Angel is one of Chatrichalerm Yukol's earliest films, and it comes from a time when his works wore their social commentary on their sleeves. Angel or Hotel Angel is the story of a girl named Malee, played by Viyada Umarin.

The film opens during the Thai New Year, Songkran, in Chiang Mai. There is some excellent footage from this event, in which people splash water on one another. In northern city of Chiang Mai, people are shown wading out into the middle of the Ping River to get water and frolic.

Malee meets her new boyfriend, who sweet talks her and convinces her to run away with him to Bangkok. They check into one of those motels that have curtains around the carport. The car pulls in, the curtain is drawn and the people get out to head upstairs, undercover, to their little love nest. Malee wakes up the next morning. The boyfriend is gone. She has no money. She's been duped. If she can't pay for the room, she must work it off. She protests, but a couple of slaps by the hotel's pimp, Tone (a cool, smooth Sorapong Chatree), sets her straight. Violent as he is at times, Tone is actually a sweet guy - a pimp with a heart of gold. He's kind of like Superman and Clark Kent. He fights to protect his girls, only he doesn't take off his glasses to do so.

Making some money, Malee's able to send some home to her Pa. Soon, Pa is building a new house. She's pulling tricks in the love motel and the house goes up. She opens her bra. Quick cutaway. Pa opens the shutters on a new window. Some great editing during this sequence.

She's told her dad that she's making money as a seamstress, while in fact she's only learning to be a seamstress, when she's not working as a prostitute.

Malee is the one the pimp calls when a girl is being difficult. One is a girl from her hometown. She's stubborn and is beaten severly. She doesn't listen to Malee.

Back up in Chiang Mai, Pa invites the neighbors over. Their daughter is in Bangkok working as a "seamstress", too. So why did she come home sick with syphllis and die? Pa is in denial.

After a spectacular fight with a customer (some great action by Sorapong) and a smart-mouthed prostitute, there's a police raid at the hotel. Malee is forced onto the streets. This is a major turning point for the film, and unfortunately it never really regains the momentum it had during the first half.

But it's still really heavy on the message. Malee gradually comes to see that the life she has fallen into is not good. She's in a difficult trap to get out of, but by making the right choices, it just might be possible to make it in this old world without selling your body. More choices are presented by a handsome stranger (Sompop Benjatikul). At first this character seems like a nice guy, but as more is revealed about him - he doesn't work, he keeps borrowing money, he disappears for days at a time, etc. - he seems to be a first-class jerk, just like all the other men in the movie.

In addition to the fine performances, excellent direction and editing, this 1974 Thai film is chock full of retro goodness. For example, during that kick-ass fight scene in the hotel, shades of the Shaft theme can be heard. It's the real thing in an age when new movies are trying so hard to be retro they simply fail.

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