Ekachai Uekrongtham's début feature is a beautifully shot
chronicle of the trials, tribulations and watery makeup-days that face all
transvestites trying to earn the cash for their transgender surgery while
labouring in Thailand's kick-boxing industry.
Based on the true story of Parinya Charoenphol, the
screenplay (Uekrongtham and Desmond Sim Kim Jin) becomes a wonderful metaphor
for the importance of becoming who we really are (Karma withstanding) so that
whatever time we have on the planet reflects our personal truth, not the
convenience of the “moral” majority.
Asanee Suwan's portrayal of Nong Thoom is
nothing short of spectacular. Like boy-soprano Jean-Baptiste Maunier's
talent in The Chorus (cross-reference below), this real-life kick
boxer flies through the action sequences with skill and grace. He also has
the boyish/girlish good looks and demeanour to wear makeup, jewels, and tasselled
arm bands with poise, flair and style.
His younger counterparts (Sarawuth Tangchit—a boy; Natee Pongsopol—a novice monk) are equally convincing in their unabashed understanding of the feminine soul trapped within
the male form. “I'm not a boy,” Thoom insists with knowledge beyond his years. But living in an impoverished family, he unexpectedly discovers that the road to
fame and fortune—and the operation he so desperately craves—must be littered with
defeated opponents in the boxing ring. The similarity between their blood and
his ruby lipstick is striking, especially when kissing his vanquished on the cheek
“to say I'm sorry—in the ring you have to hurt strangers.”
Trainer Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree) puts his young warriors
through their paces and Choochart Nantitanyatada's camera captures their
transformation from awkward sucker-punch victims to near-balletic interpreters
of murderous choreography that enables the most beautiful of them all to destroy
his/her opponents with dispatch.
And this is where the film soars: the gruelling repetition of hundreds of sit-ups (with sympathetic abdominal beatings
to add extra strength) provides the framework for the intercuts of arm, leg and
foot regimens which—once the basics have been mastered—equip the students with
the physical skills necessary to begin the real art of learning to “kick with
your head.” On several occasions the well-honed bodies strut their stuff in
silhouette, producing exquisite images of the “corps” in action.
Throughout it all, Thoom gains confidence in
his inner-self even as his male outer-shell is toughened for the ring. On the
way, he has a hilariously honest moment when a buddy-paid-for prostitute reveals
her ample breasts and encourages the virgin to “show me yours,” to which,
without missing a beat, he replies, “I don't have them yet.” With such a mature
presentation of the joy and the fear pulsing though the majority of scorned
young beings, Beautiful Boxer jumps far ahead of the pack of other “coming out films” (Prom Queen, cross-reference below), that seem
content with the cheap laugh and an army of stereotypical characters.
The sub-plots of Chart's sweat-shop induced
illness and his faithful friend, Nat's (Sitiporn Niyom) betrayal for cash, add a cup of variety but
little narrative depth. Yet those weaknesses are balanced by some subtle
touches including the Anaconda's (Samnuan Sangpali) pulverized head landing squarely in Thoom's
crotch as the mocking opponent collapses in defeat: another bully gets his
From the Ave Maria–like opening bars accompanying the physical
transformation from male to female, through the heady drums of battle, Amombhong
Methakunbudh's music is also a major component of the film's success.
Beautiful Boxer is a magical vision of
the ring of the imagination, where anything is possible if the top of the
seemingly impossible staircase to self-acceptance can be reached. JWR