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Beautiful Boxer (2004)

Zach Hines

The fight scenes are engrossing, drawing attention to a broader exploration of the friction between two gender ideals.

Beautiful Boxer

Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Cast: Asanee Suwan, Sorapong Chatree, Orn-Anong Panyawong, Nukkid Boonthong
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: U.S.
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)

A sweeping populist biopic, Beautiful Boxer focuses on charismatic Nong Dhoom (Asanee Suwan), champion Muay Thai boxer and ladyboy par excellence. His intentions seem righteous, and his challenges to entrenched social norms are revealed in wonderful footage. Still, we can't help but feel that something vital is omitted.

Based on the true story of Parinya Charoenphol, the film follows Nong, who begins the narrative a man and ends as a female. In the late '90s, Nong became a national figure in Thailand, part diversion and part empowering model of the Thai spirit, both byproducts of the Asian economic downturn that marked the period. A country boy who became famous, he was an underdog triumphing over staggering odds, a feminine kickboxer, a soft-voiced boy with makeup who would kick your ass, then blow you a kiss.

Nong desperately wishes from an early age to become a woman in form, as the surgeon puts it, "so that his soul and body can live harmoniously." But first he must care for his poverty-stricken family. He drops out of a Buddhist monastery and stumbles into the world of Muay Thai kickboxing. Finding he has a talent for the elegantly brutal sport, he wagers on this ability to support his family. With the help of his trainer (Sorapong Chatree), he finds the hidden grace in the technique, and by 19, he is the most famous kickboxer in Thailand, developing a fervent following as he transforms the boxing ring into a beauty pageant with his makeup and traditional dance.

The film finds in these realms in a similar theatricality, and further, that masculinity and femininity are means to seek attention. The sport achieves this through dominance and wealth, while femininity (in the form of transvestitism) secures it through beauty and the incitement of desire. The fact that such common ground appears in two prominent expressions of Thai culture suggests a deep well to explore. I ask: why are ladyboys so common in Thailand? But on this point, the film offers no suggestions.

The film leaves open many questions, general and specific. It never mentions any romantic liaisons Nong may have had, save for an awkward encounter with a female Japanese fan in a hotel room and some flirting with an American backpacker. Instead, Nong appears here a squeaky clean idol, beauty queen and rock star, but conspicuously lacking darker aspects so often attributed to both. Distinguishing sexual desire from the need for self-realization and -invention seems particularly simplistic, with regard to the famously fraught experience of this most "virtuous" and well-known ladyboy.

Despite this silence, the movie finds its own sort of beauty. Its most engaging moments come in the extended fight footage, gorgeously staged and photographed, including a breathtaking fight in the middle of a rainstorm. These scenes are engrossing in and of themselves (and the film is worth its production costs alone as a document of this sport), but they also draw attention to a broader exploration of the friction between two gender ideals. The film's highlight is an exceedingly aggressive boxing match, bookended by Nong's feminine dance and a conciliatory peck on the cheek of his/her defeated opponent.

Bringing together mainstream story structures (the heroic underdog) and underground subject matter, Beautiful Boxer was on fire throughout the international film festival circuit, acclaimed in Berlin, Rio, Hong Kong, and Vancouver, and winning the Thai National Film Awards for Best Actor and Makeup. The praise is understandable, as the movie is very foreigner-friendly. In fact, the narrative is framed as Nong's explanation to a white journalist, in a butchered English voiceover (Asanee is clearly reading).

But while it's plainly a successful international project, it stops short of introspection into a collective Thai subtext, or even a fair look at the lead character's motivations. (It's possible to do all three; consider what Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has been doing.) With this first full-length feature, the Thai theatrical director Ekachai Uekrongtham emerges as a strong counterpoint to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who toils in the obscure avant-garde underground (but makes international waves all the same). Ekachai offers a powerful voice for Thailand. It's an exciting and promising time in Thailand, with diverse possibilities for a national cinema coming together so beautifully.

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