Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Review: Beautiful Boxer

  • Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham
  • Starring Asanee Suwan, Sorapong Chatree
  • International director's cut screened in limited release in Thailand in 2004
  • Rating: 4/5

Beautiful, but not quite a knockout, Beautiful Boxer nonetheless has plenty of heart and some decent laughs as it tells the story of Nong Toom, a devastating male Thai kickboxer who went on to have a sex change.

Told as one long flashback, the story begins with a foreign reporter wending his way through Bangkok's seedy Patpong area, heading to a gay cabaret club where Nong Toom is a performer. He just misses her in her dressing room (having a funny encounter with another transgendered performer), but sees her heading out the backdoor of the club. So he follows. In his haste, he bumps into the wrong crowd and proceeds to have his butt kicked, but soon, some well-placed roundhouse kicks are thrown by a high-heeled foot and the reporter is saved. He's also found his interview subject.

Recalling her life as a young boy, she figures she first wanted to be a girl when she was at a temple fair in Chiang Mai. Her friend, a girl, wanted to check out the Thai boxing. Toom was repulsed by the blood and violence and went to check out the likay (Thai folk opera) instead.

The film then follows the boy's hardships in growing up in a poor family and his struggles with his identity as he was sent to a temple at a young age to be a monk.

Cut to years later. Toom is an effeminate teenager, hitting on the backpacker boys. Back at that same temple fair, he is coerced into taking part in a Thai boxing match, though he had no training. Much to his family's, and his, surprise, he wins.

Eventually he joins the boxing camp run by Phi Chat (Sorapong Chatree), who sees promise in Nong Toom.

What's most heartwarming about this is the support of Toom's family, friends and his trainer, even as he was open about wanting to be a transvestite.

There's plenty of humor, too. Like Toom's manager, who instead of being disgusted by his wearing makeup gives Toom money so he can go out and get waterproof makeup, because the regular kind runs when Toom perspires and makes him look ugly.

The epic tale is beautifully photographed, with plenty of dance-like training, all enshrouded by fog or silhouetted.

The performances are remarkable as well, especially Asanee Suwan, a Thai kickboxer who was chosen by Nong Toom and the director. It's his debut film role. He was recognized for his work with the best actor award last year by the Thailand National Film Association, a big surprise since he was up against Japanese leading man Tadanobu Asano, who starred Last Life in the Universe. Beautiful Boxer also won best make-up, which was fitting.

This was a special press screening of the director's cut, the version that is shown internationally at film festivals. I spoke with the director afterward and he was glad to find out this was the first time I'd seen the film.

For the Thai theatrical release, it was cut down about 15 minutes, with the film concentrating on the boxing action. The longer version concentrates more on the drama.

While I don't mind the length, there were some pacing issues that felt draggy to me, like some of the training sequences and some of the portions later in the film as Toom was struggling with her identity.

This was also the debut feature film from the director, who comes to motion pictures from the theater, where he directed an acclaimed musical about Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins. So if some parts of Beautiful Boxer seemed stagey, he can be excused.

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