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He's Got Legs

Beautiful Boxer, the true story of a Thai transgender kickboxer, is a well-intentioned film with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, it also has a brain of lead, a stomach of iron, and legs of jelly. A student at the beat-you-over-the-head school of moviemaking, its sensibilities are crude, its sentiments super-sweet, and its mechanics largely graceless. And yet, Boxer deserves an audience. Its intentions survive their manifestation, and its subject, Parinya Charoenphol (known as Nong Toom), is one in a million. His story, however cheapened by the film, is worth knowing.

Born to a pair of migrant workers, Nong Toom (played by an actual Thai kickboxing champion, Asanee Suwan) grew up in poverty nevertheless blessed by the stunning beauty of the Thai countryside. At five, he attended his first temple fair, a carnival that featured the lush pageantry of opera as well as the bald violence of kickboxing. Toom was drawn to the former, mimicking the rarified movements of the actresses, to the enjoyment of his mother. But soon enough, Toom's penchant for dance, and for wearing flowers in his hair, drew ridicule (and physical attacks) from his peers, even from his younger brother. His parents sent him to a Buddhist monastery, but he failed as a monk: One of the precepts forbade adornments of any kind.

In Toom's early teens, a series of family crises rendered his parents unable to work. Toom became the provider, relying first on odd jobs and later on the kindness of a local noodle vendor -- a woman who turned out to be a former man. Then, in the wrong place at the wrong time, Toom was challenged to a fight in the ring at a temple fair. Taunted by his opponent for being a sissy, Toom knocked him out, earning his first taste of power and self-respect. When the wad of cash was pressed into his palm, he saw a way out of poverty. He found a trainer and began the long and painful journey toward pro kickboxing (and, in the case of the movie itself, the long and painful montage toward multiple climaxes).

All of this occurs in the first hour of the film, which is the better of the two -- though it's still plagued by any number of mistakes. Essentially, Beautiful Boxer is a lesson in the pitfalls of the biopic, which are as follows: 1) melodrama; 2) romanticization; 3) oversimplification; 4) the attempt to convert a life into a single lesson (or message); 5) the unearned swelling of strings (and plangent twinkling of piano keys); 6) the overuse of montage and slow motion; and 7) predictability -- not because you know the story in advance, but because everything, from the moment the child is conceived to his triumphant whatever in front of a massive crowd of adoring fans, drips with portent. In Boxer as in other failed biopics, the film's reverence for its subject is an impediment to honest storytelling. With a little less worship and a little more grit, the film could have loosened its gears and ventured onto a road less traveled. The paradox is that a fictional character would have had the freedom to be more real.

Of course, there was promise here -- namely, a potentially fascinating protagonist. How does a boy who has felt like a girl imprisoned in a male body since the age of 5 -- and who, also since then, has wanted nothing more than a starring role in the opera, as a woman -- become a national kickboxing champion? As it should, the movie's conflict hinges on this question; the opening credits cut scenes of hyper-femininity (a manicured hand, a slinky red dress) into a pastiche of the pounding, sweaty brutality of the fighter in the ring. (Director Ekachai Uekrongtham carries this bipolarity through the entire movie, often following the amped mania of boxing matches with Nong Toom's dark, tearful, and lonesome fantasy of femininity. The result is an unfortunate sense of jerky repetition.)

At the same time, Beautiful Boxer does attempt to answer its central question of how this complexly gendered persona (a boy who's a girl playing a woman and a man?) came to be. It's all in Toom's childhood, with its double-edged sword of poverty and ridicule, his twin towers of motivation to fight. First Toom boxes for money to support his parents; then, as his opponents taunt him, he fights for revenge. Still later, when he has long since tired of the violence and the publicity, he fights for a sex change. It's not until Toom ventures into international super-schlock (battling a female Japanese wrestler in the Tokyo Dome) that he earns enough for the operation.

It's a good story, but a bad movie. Why couldn't we have a documentary? The saddest thing about Beautiful Boxer is that we never get to hear from the actual Nong Toom, now post-op and an actress and model in Thailand. From her pictures, and from a cameo role, she makes a far better impression than the man who plays her.

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Melissa Levine

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