Political Film Society - Newsletter #220 - February 27, 2005

February 27, 2005


Members of the Political Film Society are now voting for the best political films of 2004. Ballots, which appear on the website and in Political Film Review #219, are due by February 28 and can be snailmailed, emailed to the above address, or through the website.

The Producers Guild of America, which gives awards to films each year in several categories, reserves the Stanley Kramer Award for films that best present social issues. In 2004, the awards went to Hotel Rwanda and Voces Inocentes (Innocent Voices). The latter film has yet to be released in the United States.

Beautiful BoxerBeautiful Boxer is a biopic about the sexual identity of a famous Thai kickboxer. Of the many ways to tell the story, director Ekechai Uekrongtham chooses to have a fictional American reporter interview Parinya "Nong Toom" Charoenphol (played by kickboxer Asanee Suwan), who in turn provides occasional voiceovers in English throughout the otherwise Thai language movie. Nong Toom begins by recounting his infancy within a poor family in a remote northern province. As early as five years old, Nong Toom begins to exhibit more fascination with women than with men, and indeed is regarded by members of the family and others in the village as a sissy. Nong Toom is particularly interested in Thai traditional dancing, which involves intricate movements and great strength by females. In response to insults, Nong Toom feels at first unable to fight back, thereby disappointing the rest of the family. Nevertheless, Nong Toom becomes a novice monk, a traditional way for poor Thais to get an education and to relieve parents of the task of supporting their children. When Nong Toom's parents are incapacitated--the mother (played by Orn-Anong Panyawong) is imprisoned for cutting firewood illegally and the father (Nukkid Boonthong) breaks his ankle--, Nong Toom feels responsible to do something to help the family. Secretly leaving the temple on several occasions to earn money for the family, Nong Toom goes into town and meets a helpful friend, a man who dresses and acts comfortably as a woman. Ultimately, Nong Toom is caught AWOL, quits as a monk, and returns home. After puberty, Nong Toom's father decides to train only the more masculine-appearing brother in some of the movements of muaythai boxing, but that brother is at first unable to kick down a small banana tree trunk. Nong Toom, secretly observing the training session, waits until alone and then demolishes the same tree trunk.

One day, Nong Toom's father takes the family to a local festival, where there is to be a boxing match with a prize of 500 baht (about US$20), a substantial amount for a poor upcountry family. Annoyed because called a "faggot" by a local teenage boxing contender, Nong Toom enters the ring and surprises everyone by winning the match with a single kick. Soon, Nong Toom is admitted to a local boxing school. With a penis that is evidently much smaller than the norm, Nong Toom refuses to shower with the boys and instead bonds with the instructor's wife, including helping her with kitchen chores and observing her use of cosmetics. The instructor, Pi Chart (played by Sorrapong Chatree), takes special interest in Nong Toom's prowess as a boxer with an incredibly strong kick. One day, on entering a tournament to win prize money, Nong Toom decides to wear lipstick. Spectators and the opponent are raucously unaccepting before the first round but change their minds when Nong Toom easily scores a smashing victory. Pi Chart now realizes that a transgendered identity can serve as an effective marketing gimmick to promote his own fortunes. Similar to or perhaps because of the rise of Thailand's award-winning gay volleyball team, as portrayed in the Thai film The Iron Ladies (2001), Nong Toom becomes a celebrity who mesmerizes spectators with incredible boxing skill at subsequent matches despite an unorthodox personal appearance. The more verbally homophobic the opponent, the harder seem the punches, which have an artistry lacking in male boxers, who seem oblivious to the limitations of their macho fixations. As an adult, Nong Toom fully realizes the conflict of being a woman trapped in a man's body, admitting to a reporter before a boxing match that much of the prize money is being saved for a sex-change operation. When the fight career advances quickly to pro fighter status, Nong Toom is allowed to refuse to strip naked before Bangkok reporters for the traditional pre-fight weigh-in at the country's premier boxing arena in 1998. While enjoying a string of victories, Nong Toom meets a cosmetologist (played by the real-life Nong Toom) who has already experienced a gender reassignment operation, and she supplies progesterone pills. Whether because of the pills or due to an obsession with the operation, Nong Toom eventually experiences a losing streak. Apparently needing more money for the US$1,000 operation, Nong Toom is invited to Japan for exhibition matches and in one scene is in the same ring with a female wrestler, Kyoko Inoue (playing herself), a weird encounter complete with airplane spins. Nevertheless, Nong Toom returns to Bangkok and has the operation in 1999 at the age of eighteen. The biography in Beautiful Boxer is straightforward enough, but the genius of the film is in demonstrating the difficult experience of being a female trapped in a male body. Men who are baffled to imagine an explanation for a male wanting so badly to be a female may (or may not) be able to empathize with Nong Toom's inner struggle, but they cannot deny that women primarily provide the psychological support that helps Nong Toom to persevere throughout that struggle. MH