Friday, August 11, 2006

Beautiful Boxer (2003)

Beautiful Boxer (Ekachai Uekrongtham, 2003)

Thailand is leaps and bounds ahead of most other nations when it comes to tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality. After all, cheap and quick sex change operations can be had in Thailand (the industry being one of the motivators for the Thai tourism board). The reasons for this may be due to the fact that the Buddhist nation rationalizes homosexuality as a result of karma. Religious or social norms as reasons, such tolerance is a beautiful thing and naturally, it will spread to the nation's culture, more significantly, its cinema. Thailand's cinematic output is mainly composed of the traditional dramas, the horror films, and the gender-sensitive films. Films like Iron Ladies (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, 2000), and its sequel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's mystic gay film Tropical Malady (2004), and his less appreciated James Bond clone The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003) have made Thailand a rich source of quality gay cinema in Asia.

Ekechai Uekrongtham's Beautiful Boxer is one of Thailand's locally grown gay-themed films that got international accolades from different film festivals. Interestingly, Beautiful Boxer is purely conventional fare. The film, a biopic of real-life crossdressing and make-up waking Thai kickboxer Parinaya Charoemphol (Asanee Suwan), doesn't say anything new about the topic, nor does it portray its themes in any particularly new way. It's harmless, oftentimes cute, at times exciting, but morosely unsure of what it really wants itself to be.

The film plays around with the idea of being a film about contradictions. The title itself is a contradiction: a boxer can loosely be described as brave, brash, or strong, but never beautiful. The opening sequence features a boxer donning his gloves, wraps, and other paraphernalia, and is intercut by sequences of a beauty queen wearing make up. The film is dealt with the same kind of paradox, of luxuriously juxtaposed contradictions that never seem to conclude into a coherent conclusion. Parinaya (his male name is Nong Toom) has known he was a female spirit trapped in a male body since he was a kid.

He is oddly attracted to pretty things, and dislikes bloody fights. Yet in an effort to please his mother and raise his family out of poverty, he tries his luck at kickboxing, where he oddly, or fatefully excels. Uekrongtham never really explains how Parinaya survived in a male-dominated sport, through the rigorous training and much of the sweat and the air of machismo dominating the training grounds. Uekrongtham satisfies himself in meager hints, or letting go everything with the fact that Parinaya is lucky enough to be adopted by a tolerating trainer and family, or boisterously foregoing everything with Rocky-style spirit-lifting scenes of inspiration.

Oddly too, Beautiful Boxer is almost absent of any sexual connotations, or romantic interests for the titular character. It may be said that transvestites, or transgender individuals are rarely homosexuals, but why bother with hints? Uekrongtham is an able filmmaker. His storytelling techniques overcome the screenplay's weakness (notably the fact that it placed the story within a laughable interview between a clumsy foreigner and Parinaya, a month after her sex change operation --- the circumstances leading to the interview is even more laughable with Parinaya rescuing the interviewer from thugs like a mysterious superhero), and he has a definite visual style that complements the film's numerous kickboxing fights. Yet, Uekrongtham delights in Freudian psychology too much: with his staging of numerous dream sequences (some bordering or trespassing the thin line of schmaltz). It's all good: fine and watchable, but not entirely good enough.

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