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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
In the Clearing Stands a Boxer
by Donald Levit

Ong-Bak The Thai Warrior is pushed by slick publicity and only recently receiving some negatives, including charges of being geared to box-office over soul. Good of its martial-arts kind, it benefits from action sequences ungenerated by special effects tricks but is nowhere the movie that its quieter, limited-venue countryman Beautiful Boxer is.

Winner of its homeland’s Oscar equivalents for Best Actor and Makeup, this feature début from Singapore-based theater director Ekachai Uekrongtham (who co-scripted) also concerns Muay Thai, kickboxing. However, unlike the other, and others of the genre, its fight scenes occur, not in relation to the usual battle or crime, but within legal rings -- including a historic Super Bowl-atmosphere match in the enormous Tokyo Dome -- and illustrate the picturesque ritual and music that accompany bouts.

Most significant is that it is a “martial-arts film” that is not a martial arts film. Like memorable considerations of “war,” “the West,” “sport,” “spies,” “the road” and so on, this goes beyond limiting category. From dirt poverty, real-life “Nong Toom” Parinya Charoenphol (118-lb. champion Asanee Suwan) fought for applause and for money with which to relieve his lychee-farmer parents . . . and to pay for the 1999 sex-change operation to free himself to “live [after] I die in this [man’s] body.” Fighting metaphorically like a man, he learns never “to forget who one wants to be.”

Significantly among its several awards figures a first prize at Turin’s International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Not the exploitative commercial project that big-time ad campaigns would surely make of it, nor its own accurate but unfortunately worded tagline “He fights like a man so he can become a woman,” Beautiful Boxer is a fine moving tale of the agony of a male who would be a female. That Toom realized that dream and, at twenty-one, is today a Bangkok actress and model, adds poignancy to the mix.

Set within the frame of English-speaking Jack’s (Keagan Kang) taped Patpong interview with an alluring red-coordinated female figure whose face remains unseen, the story unfolds in flashback, sometimes in English but usually subtitled Thai. The time is shortly before the surgery, and a coda will take us to post-operation homecoming. As the child Toom, Sarawuth Tangchit seems instinctively to capture the divided soul, pushed around by younger brother Tam (Tanyabuth Songsakul), attracted to things feminine yet fearful of shaming gentle Ma (former Miss Thailand Orn-Anong) and Pa (Nukkid Boonthong), and distressed by the family’s rural struggles.

Following traditional temple school and travels with the itinerant monk who first instructs him that “water flows which way it wants,” Toom (now played by Natee Pongsopol) works at small jobs and casually begins training at a local kickboxing camp under Pi Chart (Sorapong Chatree), who sees in the twelve-year-old potential in need of work ethic. The country’s culture is more officially and publicly tolerant than ours of transvestitism, but the sad-faced youngster is afraid and keeps his tendencies from others. Mother sees through him, of course, and lovingly understands, as do Pi Chart’s companion and camp cook, Pi Bua, and eventually Pi Chart himself.

Actually hulked down rather than up, eyes perpetually downcast, twenty-two-year-old “Art” Suwan is compelling as the grown Toom who wins twenty of twenty-two provincial matches -- eighteen by knockout -- becomes a controversial celebrity, and takes to wearing more and more makeup in the ring. Embraced by some, scorned as a disgrace or mere publicity-seeker by others, he rises in the macho field and yet mourns his entrapment in the male body. His tears when a female groupie undresses for him after the Tokyo fight, or curled fetus-like on training camp sands, are real. Arenas spotlighted dark and cooler northern hills green, this highly colored, red-and-yellow-dominated world sparkles with ceremony, costume and celebration, made attractive but not distractive.

Even before his first winded, failed Rocky-run up Wat Doi Suthep’s three-hundred-and-eight dragon-flanked steps, one cannot help but be in this winning champion’s corner.

(Released by Regent Releasing; not rated by MPAA.) 

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