This is one of the more unusual biopics I've had the pleasure of seeing and, honestly, if it hadn't been based on a true story, I doubt that I would have enjoyed it as much as I did. Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham took the life story of one of Thailand's greatest kick boxers, Parinya Charoenphol, who also happened to be a homosexual, a transvestite and eventually had sexual reassignment surgery in order to become a woman. Regardless of how you might feel about homosexuality in general, or transgendered individuals specifically, one thing is certain, Toom's story is definitely an interesting one and probably unlike anything you've ever seen.
Sadly, Beautiful Boxer uses an awkward and unnecessary framing device as Jack (Keagan Kang), a Western journalist, tracks down Nong Toom (played by Thai actor Asanee Suwan) to chronicle her life story for an article he's writing. Tracking her through the seamy underbelly of Bangkok's nightclubs, Toom makes a grand entrance rescuing her pursuer from a gang of muggers. She makes short work of them using her powerful Muay Thai kickboxing skills, the same skills that eventually allowed her to pay for her sex change operation. Jack makes it clear that he was following Toom in order to write a piece about her fascinating story and she agrees to be interviewed.
We follow Toom's life from when he was just a young boy (who liked to wear Mommy's make-up and wear flowers in his hair) training to become a monk, until he is a teenager and is entered in his first kickboxing match. Muay Thai Kickboxing is the National Sport of Thailand and has been in the spotlight of late due to the high-flying antics of Martial-artist Tony Jaa and his films Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and Tom Yum Goong. Opponents can use punches, kicks and even combinations of elbows and knees combined with high-flying leaping strikes, making it a brutal and challenging sport. Toom's first match was a result of standing up to a local bully and his win was nothing short of a fluke, but the feeling of triumph combined with the 500 baht cash prize is a powerful intoxicant and soon he is enrolled in a school for Muay Thai.
His trainer, Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree), knows there is something different about him, but rather than seeing his flamboyant mannerisms and love of make-up as a negative Pi actually encourages him to use these in the ring in order for him to feel more comfortable and also to psyche out his opponents. As a result of his made-up face and winning record, Nong Toom soon becomes one of the most popular kickboxers in Thailand, eventually competing in national matches in Bangkok. Up until this point, Nong Toom was merely a transvestite (and, although not shown, probably a homosexual as well), but once he is exposed to the transgendered culture that flourishes in Thailand's capital he begins to see that he has other options. Eventually, he begins to take hormones I order to take on a more feminine appearance, but as a result of this he is banned from competing in Thai competitions and must resort to exhibition matches elsewhere.
The film, which up until this point was painting a picture of someone who faced adversity and discrimination throughout their lives and overcame it all by just being themselves, but now takes a darker turn as Toom's celebrity star has long since set and he is forced to head to Japan where he's treated as a freak in order to earn enough money to complete his operation. This is perhaps the lowest time in Toom's life and maybe it's these latter scenes that are supposed to show us the pain and alienation that someone with gender confusion experiences. If so, it's highly effective as the match (or mis-match?) between Toom and a Japanese female wrestler is painful to watch, only eclipsed by an encounter between Toom and a female admirer at his hotel.
At times the film becomes mired in its own melodrama, but it does have a strong sense of style, often highlighting the balletic grace of the Muay Thai form itself. Watching the various training montages and the slow-motion matches themselves, you can understand what appealed to Parinya in the first place. In a way, it's a shame that this film is being pegged as a "Gay Interest" piece, since I think that it resonates more on the overall human condition. As People, we are all comprised of different qualities and I think this story of a Thai kickboxer fighting so that he can become a woman isn't just a gay or transgendered story, but it's actually a human story.
Picture: Presented in a 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Beautiful Boxer looks great. The film is full of bright, bold colors and the image is crisp and clear with little to no grain present.
Audio: There is just a single Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track of mixed Thai and English which sounded good. There are portions of the film which are in English, such as scenes featuring Jack the reporter, as well as much of the film's narration.
Extras: There are several Extras included on this Disc including an "Inside Beautiful Boxer" featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, a message from the film's director, Ekachai Uekrongtham, Music videos and the film's original theatrical trailers and teasers.
Conclusion: I have to admit, Beautiful Boxer turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Thailand has really got its act together of late and are currently putting out films as good as anything Japan, Korea and even Hong Kong are releasing. While Beautiful Boxer is going to be a difficult sell to all but the most open-minded movie goers (Honestly, can you name another transgendered-action-biopic?), I think that those who discover it will find it a welcome detour off the beaten path. Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior has been one of my favorite martial-arts flicks since I saw the Thai version late last year and the matches in this film are tiding me over until Tom Yum Goong hits stateside. Recommended.