WOW! So many new voices from excellent bloggers on here I better get on the stick or I’ll be left behind! It’s been my Holy Grail to nail down a regular schedule for getting my blogs out but that’s easier said than done while switching careers these past few weeks 😉
However tonights topic is one of my favorites, Thai movies! I love Thai movies and in fact I have several including some of the biggies like The Legend of Suriyothai, Ong Bak, The Overture and of course, tonights review de jeur, Beautiful Boxer! Thai movies right now are riding a wave of success and popularity here in the US and each of these films have played in major theatres.
Living in Washington, DC. there is a definite international feel here with resturants of every taste from every cultural background, to music and shopping enclaves of many different ethnic races including Thai! That comes with the territory since DC is literally considered the Capital of the Free World yet still is a cosmopolitan city with southern charm. It’s not Thailand but not bad for being the worlds largest ‘company town’ of federal employees, unlike the urban chaos that is our big whacked out northern cousin New York City.
But what does all this have to do with Thailand or Thai movies? Two words. “Film Festivals” and not only do film festivals marry two of my great loves, going to movies and Thailand, but also makes my blogging job a lot easier, at least this month!
Right now like the Cherry Blossoms blooming along the Potomac, DC is festooned with International Film Festivals and this year some of the best new movies from Thailand have hit theaters here on our American shores. This whole month has been great for celebrating Thai culture! The week after Songkhran here in DC was the annual DC International Film Festival and Ekachai Uekrongtham’s ‘Beautiful Boxer’ plus ‘The Overture’, otherwise known as ‘Hom Rong’ and directed by Ittisoontorn Vichailak, were the two films showcased to represent Thailand.
I have both on VCD but they are only in Thai so some of the dialog I miss out on since my Thai is nowhere near fluent. Therefore it was a treat that two great movies from Thailand would be playing here and would have sub-titles, after all what is a real foreign film experience without sub-titles? Still, it’s a win-win since I already have both at home I can watch them at anytime if I want to ‘go native’ or at least pretend or maybe be a true connoisseur savouring the cinematic flavor unmarred by having to read the bottom of the screen all the time (are you buying my glowing prose here?) After all sometimes if I want to read I’ll just pull out one of my Thai books!
Unfortunately I could only choose one movie to go see so since I am also a huge fan of Muay Thai, guess which movie I picked? I love Thai boxing and as much as I wanted to see both films I just could not pass this one up even though I have seen it more than once before.
The night of the movie I was excited to see it again the right way in the theatre, and in a way, see it for the first time since with English subtitles I could enjoy a deeper understanding of the story and characters. I was surprised that the theatre was packed for the showing but I could count the number of Thai faces in the crowd on one hand almost!
The movie is beautifully photographed and very emotional but hardly as controversial as some folks here in the States might think given the true story. My biggest surprise was that it was so funny! With sub-titles it was easy to catch all of the jokes and several times the whole theatre was roaring with laughter.
The movie is based on the real story of Parinya Charoenphol, who pretty much every Thai knows as Nong Toom, a highly skilled kick boxing sensation that cause quite a stir several years ago as Thailands National Muay Thai Champion. Nong Toom is a ‘former’ boy from Northern Thailand who began kick boxing at age twelve and ended his career at 18 with an impressive 20 out of 22 wins even before stepping into the ring for his first big match in Bangkok!
For those of you who don’t already know you make ask yourself why do I say ‘former’ boy? Because from an early age Nong Toom always believed he was a woman trapped in a mans body. In fact the movies tag line is “He fights like a man so he can become a woman” in other words he is a Gathoey, or Lady Boy in Thai.
Lady boys are an interesting element in Thai culture, neither gay or straight and likewise neither condemned or condoned they are just somewhere in the middle. Maybe it is because Thailand is a Buddhist country and Buddhism sees the human body as two ends, the head is considered sacred and not to be touched while the feet are considered lowly and base and it is insulting to point them at someone.
In a sense this leaves the middle of the body along with some notions of sex, sexuality and gender in the middle where it takes up a neutral place as neither good nor bad, neither ‘here’ or really ‘there’. As such the movie is not so much about bust ’em up high kicking Muay Thai action, although there is plenty of that to spare, but more about the intense inner turmoil and conflict of Nong Toom, born trapped in a body he never felt he belonged in while yearning to become a real woman and at the same time learning to become a man as he fights in the ring. Until seeing this movie it never really dawned on me before how much conflict that people can and often do endure simply by being themselves.
The part of young Toom is played by several actors at different ages throughout the movie but Asanee Suwan is the star as the young Nong Toom who becomes Thailands champion kick boxing phenomenon. When he comes out as a gathoey boxer in full make up and female manners, even as he is jeered by some as a ‘freak’ and ‘novelty act’, other cheer him on or they are stunned silent when again and again he beats the crap out of any opponent mocking him in the ring with his fierce kicks and punches. Anf for each opponent that kisses the matt after being beaten Nong Toom gives the loser a kiss to genuinely say sorry for having hurt them. Sincere but sensational as the crowd eats up the outrageous ‘acts’ in such a manly sport.
Asanee, or Art, as a non actor does a creditable job and as a real life professional kick boxer he more than delivers in the films many intense and electrifying fight scenes. The success of this movie has not only spawned his acting career but he also sings several songs on the movie soundtrack! He’s not the best singer, certainly not in a league with Bank from the band Clash, but as the handsome young man that he is I don’t think too many people will notice his, ahem, singing.
Ultimately Nong Toom reaches his goal making enough money as a kick boxer and he makes the decision to get a sex change and finally live his dream of being a real woman although he can never fight again since woman are forbidden in the ring and in the macho mans world of professinal Muay Thai. It’s a movie and a story that is both dramatic and sad, confused sometimes as well as triumphant. ‘Beautifule Boxer’ doesn’t try to be something to please every one and I am sure there are many that leave the theatre scratching their heads at what they just saw.
I don’t think I’ll ever see any tough guy American actors taking on a role like this unless it was played for dumb stereo types and cheap jokes. From what I understand in Thailand it’s the same, you see gathoey everywhere on TV but like blacks and dumb parents on American TV they are played for stupid comic relief. No thanks, not for me I’d rather have something that forces me to think than just to laugh at something we don’t always understand. In that regard we Americans are still wussies that really need to grow up.
In the movie the real life Nong Toom has a cameo appearance and offers his alter ego some sage advice that no matter how beautiful he looks on the outside he must take care of what is on the inside to trully fulfill his dream. Of course in the movie they are taking about taking female hormone pills but come on the metaphor is not too hard a stretch to imagine, is it? It’s a typically Buddhist but very real message that carries the heart of the film.
Leaving the theatre after having several great laughs and trying, but failing, to hold back a few tears I still didn’t know what I think of Gathoeys personally but the message is clear. Take care of what’s inside you, whether your a woman in a mans body, a gay person in a straight world, a Thai person in a farang body (like yours trully perhaps??) or a farang in a Thai person (hey, it could happen!)
It doesn’t matter about being gay or straight, Asian or Farang, being beaten black and blue or wrapped up in the red, white, and blue (hmmm two countries, same colors ;)), or if you just got the blues with your dog blue, whatever! Or if your any combination in between you have to take care of you cuz your the only you you got. Even if you fight tooth and nail for love, respect, acceptance or merely just survival. Sadly most people never even chose to step up to the ring but instead stay hidden in a corner where they live their lives being the ‘same’ never daring to be ‘different’ even if different is learning to be who you are really meant to be and is the only thing really fight worth fighting for.
For more on Beautiful Boxer please visit the official website http://www.beautifulboxer.com/
Photos of Beautiful Boxer courtesy of GMM Grammy PCL my thanks for their generous permission
Next time I review another and very different Thai ‘outcast’ type movie that turned out to be nothing like what I expected!
Lastly I would like to say my thanks to our excellent webmaster Richard who has worked hard as of late to upgrade and improve our blogging home on the web. His dilligence and hard work has made this site a joy and a cool place for bloggers and browsers alike. I would also like to say thank you for the priviledge of being given my very own official blog page and I hope my writings and musings live up to a standard of excellence that everyone can be proud of. I just hope I don’t run out of things to say! 😉
Till next time,