Browsing the DVD shelves in the library yesterday I came upon something among the foreign films that piqued my interest. It was a Thai film made in 2004 and released in the US the following year, though not what anyone could term a mainstream release. It surely got attention in major cities, but would never have reached grass roots filmgoers. The film is Beautiful Boxer, director Ekachai Uekrongtham’s biopic of Parinya Chjaroenphol, a Muay Thai boxer (kickboxer) who underwent a sex change operation to become a woman.
On first impression this may strike many Westerners as a weird and freaky kind of story, but life is not always the same for people in other countries where culture is shaped by concepts un-American. There is no wholesale condemnation of people like Nong Toom (Parinya) in Thailand, a country where Buddhism has shaped people’s worldview for century upon century. The initial impression of a story revolving around sex change is possibly off-center for many, but it should be said from the start that Beautiful Boxer is a sensitive and moving film that takes us into an area that deserves some thoughtful contemplation without the barriers of prior judgement.
The movie follows Nong Toom’s life from his days as a young boy in northern Thailand, a boy who likes to wear lipstick and flowers in his hair, yet grows to have a sensational career as a kickboxer specializing in ancient Muay Thai boxing moves, all executed with perfect grace. A large part of the story naturally includes the young man’s confrontation with his burgeoning sexuality, ultimately leading to a sex change.
Despite cultural determinants one way or the other, the script makes it seem a little too easy along Nong Toom’s road to become the woman he wishes to be. It’s hard to accept that his battles would have been as easily resolved as the story leads us to think. The result is a weakening of the dramatic tension. But this is one weakness in an otherwise excellent film that features a superb performance by Asanee Suwan, voted the Best Boxer by the Association of Muay Thai for the northern region of Thailand in 2001. He trained as a kickboxer from the age of twelve to twenty-one and his skill is displayed in the film's many and often exciting boxing sequences. Thailand’s National Film Association recognized Asanee as Best Actor in 2004 for his performance in Beautiful Boxer.
One of the more moving parts of the story is the young boy’s breaking of rules in working to earn money for his mother and father. At one point he is turned away from a job and fearing he will be unable to help his parents, he sits crying. He is taken under wing by a local woman who feeds him, finds him other work, helps in caring for his parents, and little by little shows him that his dreams are not impossible.
The ending of the film is particularly well done. The real Parinya in her full blown beauty as a woman is shown at her dressing table. Reflected in the mirror, the kickboxer she once was is stepping away into the background. A small glimpse of the now resolved gender conflict illuminated by the kickboxer’s smile. “You no longer need me. You have become who you wanted to be, achieved what you wanted to achieve.” In Parinya’s face we see there is something that doesn’t quite want to let go of this virile and finely muscled young man who fought to be himself. “You don't have to,” he reminds her, “I will always be within you.”
The photograph above is a still from a scene near the end of the film showing Nong Toom in seven stages of his/her life.