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Beautiful Boxer

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 02/11/05 13:13:45

"Invigorating saga of a young man on a journey of discovery to find herself."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Training a group of young monastic students in Chiang Mai Province, Thailand, on the tenets of Buddhism, their teacher asks each boy in turn to recite a precept of the faith. When they get to the Eighth Precept – the one cautioning against the use of "garlands, perfumes, and personal adornments" – the old monk observes dryly that this should be the easiest one for the youngsters to follow. Who, he quips rhetorically, would want to put flowers on the head of a bald man? For one of the monks-in-training, Parinya Charoenphol, affectionately called Nong Toom, the question is far from rhetorical, because Toom has lived his entire life convinced that he is a girl trapped inside a boy's body. For him, the observance of the Eighth Precept would necessitate the most painful of sacrifices – relinquishing the make-up, hair ornaments, and feminine attire he so loves to wear.

After trying hard to conform to the monastic standards, Toom finally realizes he is unsuited to such a life and returns to his family home in the northern province. Attending a local fair with his brother and their friends, Toom gravitates with the rest toward a beauty pageant – the other young men to ogle the contestants, Toom to fantasize about being one of them. When the group wanders over to the kickboxing matches at the fair, Toom is reluctantly goaded into the ring – and wins his match. Appalled by the brutality that is so foreign to his gentle nature, he is equally invigorated by the sport and attracted to it for the money he could make in support of his family – and in furtherance of his greatest wish, which is to have a sex-change operation.

When Toom is accepted to a kickboxing camp under the guidance of a driven but generous coach, he yearns to succeed but is conflicted by the violence of the sport, with which he can't come to terms, and discomfited by the close living arrangements he is forced to share with the other boxers. His coach's compassionate wife, who knows full well of his sexual ambivalence, opens his eyes (which she makes up, gorgeously) to the beauty and balletic grace of kickboxing and becomes his staunch ally in his quest for gender reassignment.

Despite its unorthodox subject – real-life Thai kickboxer Nong Toom, who went from being “him” to “her” – Beautiful Boxer is a crowd-pleaser of the first order, equally appealing to action-movie fans, ballet aficionados, and gay-rights activists. Ecumenicalism doesn’t get much better.

Asanee Suwan, himself a Muay Thai boxer in real life, shines as Nong Toom, in an acting debut that garnered him the Supannahongsa, Thailand’s version of Oscar. First-time director Ekachai Uekrongtham's work is not always fully polished visually, but he does elicit lovely performances from Suwan and the rest of the cast – in particular, Sorapong Chatree as Toom's sympathetic coach, and Orn-Anong Panyawong and Nukkid Boonthong as his loving and supportive parents.

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