February 20, 2005

MOVIES: Beautiful Boxer (Ekachai Uekrongtham, 2003)

Beautiful Boxer is an odd movie from Thailand, that tells the true story of Parinya Charoemphol, an actress/model who was born male and became a great kickboxer in order to finance his sex change.

The story is told in flashback, as Parinya narrates her life story to a reporter. We go back to childhood, and see that the boy then known as Nong Toom knew from a very early age that he should be a woman.

As a teen, Toom tagged along with his brother to a local kickboxing instructor; the brother was a flop, but Toom proved to have natural talent. At first, he wasn't interested, thinking that the sport was too violent, but when he realized that it might be his best way to make enough money to pay for his surgery, he began to work very hard, eventually becoming one of the best kickboxers in Thailand.

His manager, Pi Chart (which is an unfortunate looking name for English-speaking audiences, but is pronounced roughly "peeSHAR"), discovers his fondness for makeup. He decides that this will be the gimmick that finally allows him to take one of his boxers to the big time in Bangkok, and Toom begins fighting in full makeup.

It's a skillfully made movie, and male actor Asanee Suwan is very good as Toom/Parinya, but the tone of the movie feels off, and it's hard to say how much of that is due to cultural differences. The audience I saw the movie with responded to much of it as campy comedy, which is not how I think it's intended.

Part of the problem is the odd mix of coyness and sophistication; Thai society seems (for the most part) unshocked by the idea of transvestism and gender-change (not the same thing, I know, but the terms are used pretty much interchangeably in the movie), though many of Toom's opponents are outraged that a boxer would appear in the ring in makeup.

But the movie treats Toom as largely sexless. There are hints that he may have been attracted to one of the other boxers at his camp, but the movie never really deals with the question of orientation, which feels like a copout, especially when telling the story of someone who lived his/her life with such courage.

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