* This article was originally written for subtitledonline.com a world cinema blog. I also have mentioned it in Part 5 of my Thailand videos.
Film: Butterfly Man
UK DVD release date:6th December 2002
Running time: 93 mins
Director: Kaprice Kea
Starring: Stuart Laing, Napakpapha Nakprasitte, Francis Magee
Studio: De Warrenne Pictures ltd
Country: UK, Thailand
Thailand is renowned for being a popular destination for tourists and backpackers, coupling a care free attitude with white sandy beaches and other such scenic locales. However, the country is also known for its sinister reputation in regard to sex tourism, crime and binge drinking culture. For anyone who found Danny Boyle’s 2000 film adaptation of The Beach lacking, they may find something to like with Kaprice Kea’s 2002 film - Butterfly Man, a low budget British/Thai thriller that explores the dual nature behind tourism that lies at the heart of South East Asia’s banana pancake trail.
Adam (Stuart Laing) is a British backpacker who arrives to the neon lights of the Khao San Road in Bangkok with his girlfriend Kate (Kirsty Mitchell). The couple’s relationship is in turmoil and despite Adam agreeing to go on holiday, to make amends with his girlfriend; the couple soon split over a heated argument. Going their separate ways, Adam is, like most travelers in a distant land, motivated into seeking new and interesting experiences and finds himself traveling south to the Gulf of Thailand to the island of Ko Samui.
Upon arriving, Adam is talked into having a Thai massage, which is sold as the most sensual experience the human body can ever receive. After awkwardly visiting a massage parlour, he is introduced to beautiful Thai masseuse Em (played by Napakpapha Nakprasitte). Forming an instant bond, Em agrees to show Adam around Ko Samui, teaching him the intricacies and customs of Thai life, and she quickly becomes an object of his affections. Unfortunately, Adam is still confused and angry over the fallout with his girlfriend and after a night of drinking finds himself engaging with sexual activity with a Thai prostitute. An act he instantly regrets the following morning.
As is the way with karma, things begin to take a turn for the worse for Adam, when he is drugged one night and robbed of all of his money, credit cards and passport. Effectively thrown out onto the streets and with seemingly no way out; he is forced to take a shady job opportunity with the local crime lords so that he can afford to travel back to Bangkok. He quickly realizes however, the true nature of his employer’s business, which is occupied with human trafficking, with Em being targeted. Evolving into a tense thriller, Adam endeavors to hit back at the crime lords, though it soon becomes apparent that nobody on this tropical island paradise is completely innocent.
Upon first impressions, the Butterfly Man certainly feels more attuned with the kind of softcore erotic thriller from the Seventies and Eighties, with its low production values and moonlit sex scenes. Incidentally the movie has been likened to French erotic art house movie Emmanuelle, not least because of its idyllic setting but also its themes regarding sensuality and guilt free sex. From this perspective, however, you overlook what is in fact an excellently paced thriller, well supported by its cast and tastefully shot on location in Ko Samui, at once reveling within the scenic locales of sunsets, palm trees and blue ocean but also illuminating the seedier side of tourism that lies just below the surface. The low production costs make the movie feel more like a travelogue aesthetically, as Adam, like Richard in The Beach attempts to find his own measure and distillation of paradise.
The performance from Stuart Laing as Adam carries much of the film. At first he is a largely unlikable character, brash and angry, seemingly motivated purely by pleasures of the flesh. Fortunately, his character arc, forces him to look inward and realize the error of his ways, and once he begins going on the offensive against the criminals, he has the viewer’s complete support, and the film is all the more satisfying. Played by Thai actress Napakpapha Nakprasitte, Em is an enchanting presence, playing a character aware of the sin and crime that surrounds her, a mode of life that profits on human misery, but is sadly oblivious to the greater threat that lies in waiting. As in Thailand’s most famous cinematic export, the Ong Bak series, the heart and soul of Thai life is depicted as to be rooted in the small settlements that exist in the rural North of the mainland.
For those who have travelled or about to go travelling around Thailand, the Butterfly Man is essential viewing. For anybody else, it is an involving, well executed thriller that betters The Beach since it reveals the ways in which the complicated ideology and need for travel can transform and broaden the mind but also how it can corrupt, not just the tourist but also the native people themselves.