They say all stories have been told before, but surely the details of the Thai hit film Beautiful Boxer are unique. The story, based on true events, is nominally familiar, a rags-to-glory tale of a poor country boy, Nong Toom, who finds opportunity through athletic prowess. The twist is that the mild-mannered Toom became a ferocious kick-boxer in the late 1990s in order to finance his sex-change operation. Today, Toom no longer fights because women are banned from the sport.
Ekachai Uekrongtham's film relates Toom's journey from farm to femme, beginning with an ill-advised reporter-seeking-story framing device. Uekrongtham, a Singapore-based theatrical director making his feature-film debut, often exhibits clumsy cinematic skills -- yet throughout his bobbles are salvaged by the truly bizarre story that always proves compelling.
Toom, raised with a migrant farming family, believes from youth that he is a she trapped in a boy's body. His mother is sympathetic, yet she encourages Toom to defend himself. An amateur kick-boxing bout presents Toom with the chance to both act manly and raise money for his dream of swapping genders.
Uekrongtham, who co-wrote the screenplay with Desmond Sim Kim Jin, deserves credit for downplaying the sensational or exploitive aspects of Toom's story. This is a film that celebrates Toom's otherness, and sanctions his desire to undertake a controversial life change. Toom's saga is surely well known in Thailand, and perhaps that's why the film scrimps on presenting what one assumes would be a fair amount of public scandal.
Instead, the film toggles between domestic melodrama and fierce fighting scenes while occasionally drifting off into dreamy reveries where Toom imagines himself a beauty queen or the fight ring becomes a theatrical stage. Several times Uekrongtham films boxing training sessions as if they were ritualized dance performances.
Toom is portrayed by Asanee Suwan, himself a noted Thai kick-boxer. His acting is often amateurish (the film's hoary dialogue doesn't help), yet Suwan captures Toom's vulnerability, his peculiar feminine grace, his sweetness and occasionally, his pain. By rights, we should feel Toom's agony more, especially the paradoxical compromise that achieving his dream demands: He longs to be a soft woman, yet he draws strength and identity from a violent sport that he must give up.
Recalling the moves of wrestling's infamous Gorgeous George, the film often presents Toom mincing into the ring in frilly clothes and full make-up, drawing roars from the spectators and enraging his opponent. But when the bell rings, Toom's fists and feet fly, and his opponent is left bloodied on the mat. There is no shame, Beautiful Boxer reminds us, in fighting like a girl. In Thai with subtitles.