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Friday, Oct. 14, 2005
He fought hard and became a girl
By KAORI SHOJI
The streets of Bangkok are filled with teenage boys in school uniforms -- joking, bantering, balancing soccer balls on their heads, etc. Look closer and you'll see some are subtly and skillfully made-up. While many such boys are gay, a few wear makeup just as a way of enhancing themselves. Thai culture has always been lenient about gender-bending, especially when the bending upgrades the person's physical beauty.
So it's not so much of a surprise that Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) champ Parinya Charoenphol, blessed with chiseled features and a delicate gracefulness, should feel the need to appear in tournaments fully made-up and wearing colorful, embroidered shorts. It also stands to reason that Parinya became a national idol, and following a sex-change operation "she" has achieved enormous success as an actress/model while at the same time running a Muay Thai school for women.
"Beautiful Boxer" (released in Japan as "Beautiful Boy") is based on the life of Parinya, and the process by which she morphed from a country boy kick boxer into a gorgeous, immaculately groomed woman who can literally kick butt.
While boxing as cinema material is currently en vogue, "Beautiful Boxer" takes a totally different approach compared to the likes of "Million Dollar Baby" or "Cinderella Man," which are made up of the same old equation of endurance, inner strength, and rising up from poverty. "Beautiful Boxer," on the other hand, merges what had heretofore been two polarized themes: traditional notions of femininity and the desire to pummel the other guy into pulp. Parinya made it a practice to tenderly kiss his opponent after knocking them out. Like a Thai Buddha statue he housed both genders and gender characteristics in a single body.
Prejudices and hardships were part of Parinya's fate, but the movie stresses how he never wavered from his goal of becoming what he wanted to be: 1) a Muay Thai champion; and 2) a woman. In his scheme of things, there was no contradiction.
Accordingly, the overall tone of "Beautiful" is more aesthetic than athletic and the visuals explode with lush primary colors and breathtaking scenery from the mountains of Chiang-Mai in northern Thailand. The Muay Thai matches are choreographed to stress its traditional, ritualized movements rather than simple action and violence. There's none of the bloodied, bone-crunching excitement of "Rocky," and yet director Ekachai Uekrongtham manages to keep the masculinity of Muay Thai intact. As the character of Parinya's coach says in the movie: "Putting on makeup does not demean Muay Thai. One's weakness and poor spirit is what demeans Muay Thai." (Go ahead and roll your eyes but an Asian martial arts movie just wouldn't feel right without such words of wisdom!)
Parinya, who in the movie is known as Nong Toom (Asanee Suwan), knew from an early age how much he wanted to be a girl. He loved cosmetics and dresses and disliked the rough-and-tumble games of other boys. But as a farmer's son he had few opportunities to indulge such desires and it was only after joining the local Muay Thai club in his late teens that he was able to scrape up enough cash to buy a lipstick or two. For Nong Toom and most of the other club members, Muay Thai was an escape from poverty. The training was tough, but they could at least keep off the streets and eat three meals a day.
The scenes of the boys sleeping after a long day of practice is touching. Crammed en masse into a single, narrow room on threadbare futon, all notions of privacy and space are reduced to zilch. Someone's foot is usually jammed against another's nose, and there's hardly enough space to lift an elbow without "molesting" anyone.
The sensitive Nong Toom found it unbearable and longed for a room of his own -- it was one of the things that drove him to excel (the best players slept in separate quarters).
Still, all his hard work didn't prevent Nong Toom from appearing in the showers wrapped demurely in a floral-patterned towel or taking makeup lessons from his coach's (Sorapong Chatree) girlfriend. He gets his share of taunts and bullying, but on the whole there's surprisingly little turmoil; the movie is careful never to let any situation get ugly or even too emotional. When Nong Toom falls in love with a fellow boxer for example, what in another movie could have been the crux (or cross) of his life, is depicted here as a sweet, but casually sentimental affair.
Eventually Nong Toom fights him and wins, whereupon the pair hug each other with mutual masculine respect.
And so it goes. "Beautiful Boxer" sticks to its own equilibrium, never resorting to camp, always unfailingly respectful about Nong Toom's cross-dressing and pining to become a woman. Those hoping for something along the lines of "Iron Ladies" (the hilarious story of Thai transvestites in a national volleyball team) or the gender angst of "Boys Don't Cry" may be disappointed. On the other hand, this is a wonderfully accurate example of the Thai state of mind: When it comes to issues of the body, anything goes.