A young boxer literally fights for what she believes in, in Ekachai Uekrongtham’s sports biopic.
“You call yourself a man?”
“I never call myself a man.”
Parinya Charoenphol, also known as Nong Toom, is a Thai kickboxing champion who garnered a lot of attention for being an openly kathoey or transgender in the mid and late 90s. She largely retired from the sport in 1999 and underwent gender reassignment surgery, but is still an important figure in conversations about the trans community and sports. Not long after her announcement and surgery, a film was released detailing her life as a young boy, her issues with identity and her eventual rise to stardom.
Beautiful Boxer shows us Toom’s life as she grows up, from a cheerful but meek lipstick-loving little boy (Sarawuth Tangchit), through her brief stint as a monk (Natee Pongsopol), and into her teenage years (Asanee Suwan), throughout always feeling like she is in the wrong body. After accidentally getting into and winning a Muay Thai match, she and her younger brother Tam (Tanyabuth Songsakul) join the local kickboxing camp, run by the friendly Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree). Toom wishes to box in order to raise enough money for gender reassignment surgery, and after Pi Chart catches her with makeup on, Toom starts fighting as the first kathoey boxer. This earns her a reputation, both good and bad, and soon Toom finds herself in the middle of a media circus.
There’s a lot to unpack here, from the excellent action sequences to the forgettable present-day sequences of a reporter (Keagan Kang) interviewing Toom but the biggest surprise to me was just how funny Beautiful Boxer was, and just how often. It’s a film that has a lot to say, but doesn’t want to be too bleak about it, which results in a far more uplifting and – importantly – hopeful film. While the comedy eases up in the final twenty minutes, the rest of the film is punctuated by jokes that I never expected in a dramatic sports biopic. These scenes add a level of humanity and realism, and allows us to connect more with its characters. This is bolstered thanks to some great casting choices, much of the credit going to Toom and his numerous actors.
Asanee Suwan might be a professional kickboxer, but his acting chops are nothing to scoff at either. I can’t find any other acting credits for him prior to this, and if this was his debut then he must be commended. He brings an immense affability to Toom which wasn’t necessary: the film details her struggles well enough that Toom is highly sympathetic by default but Suwan still goes the extra mile to give a performance that tugs on the heartstrings even after the credits have rolled. It sometimes comes off as a touch heavy handed, but with the entire film resting on whether or not we like Toom it’s fair enough.
My only real gripe with the movie is that the third act is just a bit on the lengthy side, and opts to fully dive into the drama. Much of the film’s earlier tone is replaced with a heavier, more morose feel that stays until the end. This sudden shift causes the end of the movie to feel like it goes on for ages. That said, very little of it feels unneeded (with the possible exception of the interview portions) so I’d be hard pressed to tell you what I would actually cut out.
At the end of the day Beautiful Boxer’s poignant story, as well as the real life history behind it, is a testament to what can be overcome with the right people backing you. Toom’s story is one of self-discovery and inner strength, but she would have struggled even more without her mother, Pi Chart, or any of the other people who were there to help her face her worst detractors. At the end, when she encourages a young boy to be who he really wants to be, she’s taking this kindness and paying it forward, hoping to become this figure of support to those struggling with identity like her – a message I’m sure many viewers will take away too.
Verdict: Sometimes heavy-handed but always well-meaning and affecting, Beautiful Boxer is a life-affirming, funny and occasionally incredibly bad-ass drama that is well worth a watch.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: Cut from the Thai release/10
Unresolved storylines: Like 3
Fight scenes: 10/10
Framing device: Entirely unnecessary
Beautiful Boxer (2003)
Also known as: บิวตี้ฟูล บ๊อกเซอร์
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Writers: Desmond Sim, Ekachai Uekrongtham
Asanee Suwan – Nong Toom/ Parinya Charoenphol
Sorapong Chatree – Pi Chart
Orn-Anong Panyawong – Toom’s mother
Nukkid Boonthong – Toom’s father
Sitiporn Niyom – Nat
Kyoko Inoue – herself
Sarawuth Tangchit – Young Toom
Keagan Kang – Jack the reporter
Tanyabuth Songsakul – Tam
Nattama Narkpo – Pi Nam