Beautiful Boxer director Ekachai Uekrongtham has said that if his feature-film debut weren't based on a true story, no one would believe it. He's right, though perhaps not for the reason he believes. The biography of Parinya Charoenphol, a Thailand-born transvestite who became a champion Muay Thai kickboxer, certainly seems improbable, but stranger things have happened. The true unlikeliness of Uekrongtham's film comes from its polished patness, its view of a life in which every event is fraught with single-minded meaning, and pointed toward one single issue.
Beautiful Boxer initially seems as messy as real life, as a Western journalist (Keagan Kang) frames the story by tracking Charoenphol for an article, and nearly getting killed in the process. But once Charoenphol—whose successes in the ring eventually financed a sex change—begins talking, the film becomes as streamlined and iconic as a fairy tale. Early encounters with the violence of boxing, the theatricality of costumed female dancers, and the raw pain of a jilted transsexual all stand out as glaringly symbolic signposts along a predictable road of self-discovery. Every moment of Charoenphol's childhood appears as either a confirmation that he's a girl in a boy's body, or a reminder of how his society disapproves. Every casual word from the people around him just happens to hammer home his difference.
But in spite of his giggly, campy effeminacy as a teenager, Charoenphol is roped into an exhibition kickboxing match, and an accidental victory teaches him the joys of audience approval. Soon he's training at a camp for kickboxers, where his natural talent makes him stand out. So does his love of makeup, which his trainer harnesses as a gimmick in the ring. Ultimately, Charoenphol (known as Nong Toom to his enthusiastic fans and horrified detractors alike) begins kickboxing in girlish regalia, turning his differences into a trademark and becoming a full-fledged celebrity.
Uekrongtham films the saga in gorgeous style. His slow-motion kickboxing matches get a little samey, but the film's rich colors and stunning compositions approach Zhang Yimou levels of constructed beauty. Like Yimou's Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, Beautiful Boxer blends pageantry and combat into a seamless visual cloth. Sometimes it's a bit too seamless, and the slick, surface-level story is more like a parable than a life. Still, Thai kickboxing champion Asanee Suwan does a phenomenal job of bringing across Charoenphol's blend of muscular athleticism and vulnerability, and the film's sheer beauty is compelling even when its clichés become discomfiting. Art doesn't always imitate life accurately, but its attempts are often more dazzling than life itself.