The Yin and Yang of It

A Thai kickboxing star pursues success to achieve goal of living as a woman

Who knew that kickboxing and mascara could be so congenial to one another?

“Beautiful Boxer” is the true story of Nong Toom Parinya Charoenphol (Asanee Suwan), a champion athlete trained in ancient Muaythai boxing moves, whose greatest desire in life is to have a sex change operation so he can become the woman he has always felt he is.

Director Ekachai Uekrongtham has created a lighthearted, sprightly film about this most singular of real-life characters. The screenplay is rather primitive in its set-up of having Nong Toom, now a woman, tell her story to a reporter in soft-spoken narration over flashbacks, but the film’s overall sweet nature and humanity win you over, despite the contrived exposition.

We see Nong Toom as an adorable little boy, studying to be a monk, but obsessed with lipstick and being as pretty as possible, and, as distant as the Thai locale may be, these scenes will strike a chord with anyone who has grown up feeling different from the childhood pack.

As Nong Toom ages, and joins a kickboxing camp, the film becomes awash in the homoeroticism of gorgeous, smooth young torsos and the piquancy of these adolescents all sleeping together, sprawled over each other in the most cramped quarters. Choochart Nantitanyata’s cinematography is striking, capturing the lush beauty of the camp’s locale as well as the boxers themselves.

In the title role, Suwan kept reminding me, of all people, of Marilyn Monroe. Ultra-nubile and pretty, he also shares that adorable, utter cluelessness which made Monroe so winning, playing all those dumb-like-a-fox blondes in the 1950s. “Act like a man!” his mother chides the boy, and he quietly but forthrightly responds, “I would never admit to being a man!

A real-life kickboxing champ, Suwan performs the strategic athletic bouts with grace and vigor and gives himself over completely to Nong Toom’s femininity in an absolutely unapologetic, bracing style. Made to suffer all manner of slights, both in her public and private life, Nong Toom holds her head up high at all times, cracking only once, when she is humiliatingly made to strip down for a weighing-in. She’s a real protagonist, which many in the transgendered community may well find highly salutary in the total lack of condescension with which she’s presented.

Veteran Thai actor, Sorapong Chatree, lends strength and dignity to the role of Nong Toom’s macho coach, as well as the movie’s biggest laugh, when he discovers his pupil applying women’s makeup and reacts in the most unexpected way. Orn-Anong Panyawong, a former Miss Thailand, plays Nong Toom’s mother, but, her considerable beauty aside, can’t do much with the rote maternal self-sacrifice of the conception.

And special mention must be made of the ferocious Kyoko Inoue, Japan’s top female wrestler, who plays herself in the film, as Nong Toom’s most vicious adversary. With her wild mane of hair, wilder makeup and husky physique, she’s a jaw-dropping sight, and a real antidote to traditional views of Japanese women as fragile lotus blossoms.

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