Beautiful Boxer, the feature film debut of the Thai theatrical director Ekachai Uekrongtham, tells the true story of Parinya Charoenphol, nicknamed Nong Toom, a cross-dressing kick boxer from a poor family who saved his championship winnings to undergo a sex-change operation at the age of 19.
In flashbacks, the child Nong Toom dresses as a female dancer to amuse his family, later he smuggles lip gloss into the Buddhist monastery where he is briefly interned. But when, as a teenager, he wins a kickboxing match at a local fair, Nong Toom sees a way to help his family and finally realize his dream of becoming a woman. He enrolls in an elite training camp run by a tough coach, Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree), and soon begins winning local matches across the country.
When Nong Toom's trainer catches his young charge playing with makeup, he matter-of-factly decides to mine the boy's eccentricity as a publicity stunt, and soon Nong Toom is winning matches dressed in drag, greeting his opponents with a lipsticked kiss on the cheek.
Beautiful Boxer at times feels repetitive and haltingly paced, but its blazing emotional core is the real-life boxer Asanee Suwan's joyously physical performance as Nong Toom. Whether lifting weights with his teeth or engaging in a delicate ritual dance before each match, Suwan paints the character's simultaneous sweetness and toughness with a subtlety that confounds the traditional categories of "masculine" and "feminine." The intricately choreographed fight scenes are breathtaking, and if the exposition between them occasionally sags, the slack is soon picked up by yet another balletic action sequence.
With its essentially sunny view of gender reassignment surgery as a means of self-fulfillment, the film shows a refreshing refusal to indulge in the stereotype of the tragic drag queen. Unfortunately, it falls victim to other cliches straight from the Hollywood canon, including the inevitable training-montage sequence common to every sports film since Rocky (and ably parodied in last year's Team America).
Directed by: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Starring: Asanee Suwan (Nong Toom Parinya Charoenphol), Sorapong Chatree (Pi Chart), Orn-Anong Panyawong (Nong Toom's Mother), Kyoko Inoue (herself), Sitiporn Niyom (Nat), Yuka Hyodo (Japanese Fan), Keagan Kang (Jack)
Running time: 118 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Language: In Thai with Mandarin subtitles
But moving performances from Suwan (who won the Thai equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar) and from a former Miss Thailand, Orn-Anong Panyawong, who plays his dubious but eventually tolerant mother, make Beautiful Boxer a rare hybrid: an underdog sports picture that's also a transgender fairy tale.