Beautiful Boxer

Beautiful Boxer

**1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

If you were to compile a checklist of sports film cliches, you would be able to tick most of its boxes for Beautiful Boxer. It is based on a true story, framed by an investigative journalist's interview with his elusive subject and told mostly in flashback. It features a protagonist who emerges from a humble rural background, who must fight incredible odds, personal demons and an often hostile public to rise to the top of his sport, and who finally returns to his provincial home crowned in glory. It is, as they say, a true underdog story.

Yet, in this most masculine of genres, what distinguishes Ekachai Uekrongtham's film is that the adversity which its main character must overcome is not drugs, illness or match fixing (although each of these does have a small part to play), but rather an ongoing crisis of gender. For champion Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol may be better known to fans by the nickname Nong Toom, and may have boxed under the moniker Black Eagle, but he also fought his biggest matches in women's clothes and make-up, and now, after a sex-change operation in 1999, is no longer able to fight in Thailand's men-only rings.

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Beautiful Boxer follows Nong Toom (Asanee Suwan) from his impoverished childhood to his brief time as a novice monk, his life-changing encounter with the transsexual Pi Nid (Chayaporn Tometh), his discovery of Thai boxing (first as a means of alleviating his parents' financial difficulties, then as an art of profound aesthetic beauty and finally as a way to pay for the sex-change), his rigorous training under Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree) and his ascendancy to international fame as a virtually unbeatable champion. Yet running in counterpoint to this story arc is Nong Toom's emergence from the closet into the global arena, first as a transvestite and then a transsexual and the tension at the heart of the film derives from the duality in Nong Toom's need to fight like a man, in order to gain acceptance as a woman.

Unfortunately, however, it is a tension which most viewers will have fully comprehended from the opening five minutes, if not from the title, making everything which follows seem a long, meandering accumulation of unnecessary detail, where any number of episodes might have "got the chop" with little damage to the overall integrity of the film.

In his softly spoken voice-over, Nong Toom declares that a moment very near the end to be "the first time I wasn't sure who I was, or what I had become," a strange utterance, to say the least, as if the preceding 90 minutes had not been about his struggles with identity as a man, son, Buddhist and Thai. Such inept writing and unpalatably mawkish conclusion suggests that the film eventually suffers from the same confusion as its principal character, unsure whether to confront the assumptions of the on looking crowd, or merely to offer them populist bromides and freak show theatrics.

Beautiful Boxer documents Nong Toom's odyssey towards womanhood with considerable colour and yet is surprisingly coy when it comes to his/her sex life, preferring flirtation, euphemism ("She no longer has to hide in toilets to put on her make-up") and nudge-nudge innuendo ("I don't like to hurt strangers - but in the ring you have no choice") to any actual depiction of sex with men. While there is an implied attraction between pre-op Nong Toom and his fellow boxer Nat (Sitiporn Niyom), the closest they come to a shared sexual experience is when Nat pays a (female) prostitute to deflower Nong Toom. This reticence on sexual matters appears to reflect a general nervousness about how far the film can run with its agenda without alienating a mainstream audience, leaving the impression - ironically, given the film's subject - of a certain closetedness.

Nonetheless, Beautiful Boxer is, in keeping with its title, beautifully shot and Asanee Suwan, himself a champion in the martial art of Muay Thai, puts in a credible performance as the delicate ladyboy with the lethal kick. And, if anyone is interested, they can see the real, post-op Parinya Charoenphol in a fitting cameo as a beauty consultant.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2005
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True story about transgender kick boxer Nong Toom.
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