As "Beautiful Boxer" opens, director Ekachai Uekrongtham cuts back and forth between images of a well-muscled young boxer preparing for a match and a graceful young woman putting on a glamorous evening gown and elegant jewelry. He never shows their faces for reasons that soon become obvious: The faces of the boxer and the woman belong to the same person.
In this tantalizing visual manner Uekrongtham introduces the real-life journey that Nong Toom (Asanee Suwan) embarked upon in first becoming Thailand's kickboxing champion and then using his earnings to undergo gender reassignment procedures and surgery in 1999 to become a woman, a beauty who embarked on a new career as an actress and model while teaching kickboxing.
This altogether remarkable film is as much of a paradox as Nong Toom: at once poetic and sensitive yet as gritty and hard-hitting as any boxing movie. In the depth of its insight "Beautiful Boxer" in its unique way is as accomplished as any classic boxing movie, such as "Body and Soul," "Champion," "The Set-Up," "Rocky" or even "Raging Bull." It is also considerably more ironic than any of those films.
If Nong Toom followed a hard, relentlessly challenging path in life, the film suggests, he had considerable good fortune along the way. Born into a hardscrabble farming family, he was drawn early in life to feminine accouterments and activities. His loving mother (Orn-Anong Panyawong) impressed upon her husband (Nukkid Boonthong) that if their son turned out to be a transvestite that was their karma -- they must accept him as he is. At the same time she instilled in her son the need to take care of himself and not allow anyone to bully him.
This directive would later pay off when Nong Toom, as a teenager, inadvertently becomes caught up in a kickboxing match at a temple festival. He doesn't like fighting but discovers he has an instinctive knack for the sport and wins the match, taking home winnings much needed by his family. By this time Nong Toom had already endured a stint as a novice monk, an experience that had strengthened his spirituality and self-discipline -- and the notion that he might just be able to fulfill his dream in this life.
He has the good luck to catch the attention of Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree), a tough but paternal kickboxing coach who invites him to join his training camp. When Nong Toom begins his rise to the top he feels compelled to start wearing makeup in the ring, and Pi Chart takes even this in stride. When Nong Toom enters the ring to hoots and hollers, his coach says simply, "Ignore the rest, do your best."
"Beautiful Boxer" is inevitably revealing about attitudes toward the transgendered. As Nong Toom begins to become famous, his gender-bending, after the initial shock, becomes widely perceived as a gimmick, and he's reminiscent of the famous wrestler Gorgeous George, who came into the ring in robes worthy of Liberace, his hair a mass of peroxided waves and curls. At this stage Nong Toom was not threatening, a celebrity who stood out from others, eliciting a frisson in his fans as he kissed those he defeated. Nong Toom gave audiences a bit of a thrill, just as when the late actor-pop singer Leslie Cheung, well into a concert, would don bright, spangly red high heels and drive his fans, especially women, wild. It was only when Nong Toom became determined to move on to the surgical transformation that he elicited outrage and controversy, some seeing him as heroic, others as besmirching Thai manhood.
Not only did Uekrongtham persuade Asanee Suwan, an actual kickboxing champ, to portray Nong Toom but also inspired him to give a portrayal that actually warrants being described as Oscar worthy. His handsome features are sufficiently refined that the transformation into a beautiful woman is believable. Suwan's Nong Toom is not so much effeminate as demure -- until he faces down an opponent in the ring. He learns that his makeup has the effect of making his opponents hit harder, which in turn inspires him to hit back all the harder. Suwan is terrific in the ring and subtle outside it, faultlessly charting Nong Toom's gradual and difficult journey.
It is indicative of the breadth of Uekrongtham's perception that for all the obstacles Nong Toom faces, the path he has chosen is at times also hard on his ultimately supportive father and his younger brother, who also undergoes kickboxing training. In an essentially straightforward narrative, Uekrongtham pulls off several surreal sequences that express stunningly the workings of Nong Toom's mind, imagination and dreams at crucial points.
At once an exquisite art film and a rousing, highly charged entertainment, "Beautiful Boxer" captures both the contradictions and the ultimate resolution in Nong Toom's high-profile life.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes
Asanee Suwan...Nong Toom
Sorapong Chatree...Pi Chart Orn-Anong Panyawong...Mother
of Nong Toom
of Nong Toom
A Regent/Here! Films release of a GMM Pictures presentation of a Spicy Apple Film production. Producer-director Ekachai Uekrongtham. Executive producers Phaiboon Damrongchaiyatham, Boosaba Daoreong, Choophong Rattanabanthoon, Ekachai Uekrongtham. Screenplay Uekrongtham, Desmond Sim Kim Jin. Cinematographer Choochart Nantitanyatada. Editor Dusanee Puinongpho. Music and sound design Amornbhong Methakunbudh. Fight choreographer Sanae Tupthimtong. Costumes Tasakorn Tragulpadetkrai. Production designer Nopphadol Arkart. In Thai and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
Exclusively at the Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 934-2944; and One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.