Beautiful Boxer hit the theatres of Thailand in 2003. 18 years later, it still makes waves as one of the only queer sports-related biopics to ever be released on the big screen.
The film gracefully traces the life of Parinya Charoenphol – the world’s first trans woman Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) fighter. Popularly nicknamed Nong Toom, Parinya is one of the most controversial figures to emerge from Thailand and from the overall realm of international sports.
She had confessed publicly that she joined Muay Thai only to pay for her gender reassignment surgery but eventually fell in love with the sport. Not only did she subvert gender expectations, but she also challenged the popular perception of Muay Thai. For her, instead of the violence involved, what was attractive was the beauty of Muay Thai. She viewed it as a composite of traditional movements, the embodying of which made her feel like she was performing a ritualistic dance. She loved the sport, and was also a dedicated student. She maintained a scrapbook of obscure kickboxing movements which she requested her trainer to teach. This is how she excelled at her trademark move, the ‘Crushing Medicine’ – which involves jumping in the air and bringing her elbow down onto the head of her unfortunate opponent.
Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t a welcome guest in the kickboxing scene. The director of Beautiful Boxer, Ekachai Uekrongtham explained in an interview that kickboxing in Thai culture evolved as a way of turning bodies into weapons to fight the Burmese. It represents more than just a sport. In Thailand, it symbolises national identity. For a woman, especially a trans woman, to breach a traditionally masculine space was unheard of. Even though Toom’s raw talent was apparent to everyone, she was considered a disgrace to Muay Thai’s sacred heritage. Nevertheless, she went on to become one of Muay Thai’s most celebrated sportspersons.
Since proving herself as a fierce fighter in the boxing ring, she has established a successful career in acting and modelling. She also runs a one-woman show called Boxing Cabaret. Additionally, she holds exhibitions and projects throughout the world. Yet, her passion lies in the world of kickboxing. “I still can’t walk past a punch bag without kicking it”, says Nong Toom.
Nong Toom is a woman sewn with paradoxes. She dove headfirst into an aggressively masculine space to express her femininity. Beautiful Boxer touches upon each thread of Toom’s life; it presents a transparent, autobiographical account of Toom’s narrative, but also positions her in a debate with herself and her identity. Her path to self-realization and the acceptance of this realization has not been linear, and Beautiful Boxer captures the complexity of her journey delicately. The screenplay, direction and narration deliver a poignant film that forces the viewer to think about the gendered body as a site of contestation, binaries as a source of tension within the self and the subversion of gender as it is predominantly understood.
Today, the Muay Thai scene is brimming with talented transgender fighters who have made their way to the top despite the odds. With all due respect to Spivak, the subaltern may not speak but they can definitely put up a fight.