August 14, 2006
Ekachai Uekrongtham - 2003
TLA Releasing Region 1 DVD
I've been watching more Thai films in anticipation of a possible extended visit to Thailand. One side advantage of Beautiful Boxer is that it was largely filmed where I will be staying, in Chiang Mai. My partner, who has spent time there has verified how much the film is accurate in showing life in Thailand based on her Chiang Mai experience. One major point worth noting is seeing the difference in a society where attitudes are informed by Buddhism, especially in the attitude towards transexuals.
The film is based on the true story of Parinya Charoenphol, also known as Nong Toom. Seen in the still above in various phases of her life, the film follows Toom's life from a female-identified boy through his career as boxer, ending with sexual reasignment surgery. While I do not know enough Thai to recognize the word used to describe Toom, and it is not the pejorative "kathoey", the English word used, transvestite, is certainly inaccurate to describe a man who desires to be a woman, rather than one who dresses for sexual pleasure. The only other glaring fault to this film is the overuse and sometime inappropriate use of graduated colored filters, as if no one trusted that the Thai countryside looks beautiful enough.
The film is neither as lurid nor as exploitive as its subject matter might suggest. Uekrongtham gives equal time to the Boxer as he does to the Beautiful. A good portion of the film is devoted to showing Toom's training in Thai boxing. One scene showing an advanced class in training is balletic, similar in some ways to capoeira, martial arts as dance. That Toom grows and evolves with the support of family and friends, and transitioned as a teenager, is a more positive presentation of a transgendered person on film than appears in most Western films. The film is critical of the show business aspects of sports, and to some extent the violence of boxing, as well as some of the attitudes shown to transexuals and "ladyboys". The scene showing Toom's father expressing concern prior to the sexual reasignment surgery may be one of the best moments in a movie to illustrate "family values".
Posted by peter at August 14, 2006 12:30 PM
I'm not sure that "kathoey" is such a pejorative. The word derives from the Khmer for "different", and was originally applied to anybody who deviated from the sexual norm, but not in a negative way. There's another phrase, "nang fa chamlang" which translates as "disguised angel" - sounds a bit overflowery to me. The common English translation is "ladyboy" - again, descriptive rather than pejorative.
The problem is, to an extent, cultural rather than linguistic. Thais are rather prudish about public displays of sexuality, and drawing attention to sexual or gender attributes. Very few people would give a second thought to, for example, having a gay or co-worker (attitudes are far more laid-back than in the West); but they would feel uncomfortable talking about homosexuality (or, indeed, heterosexuality) as a concept.
Posted by: Cultural Snow at August 19, 2006 06:13 AM
Peter, I'm so glad you had an opportunity to watch "Beautiful Boxer", one of my favorite films of the 2004-2005 season. I've folded your comments into the review I wrote up upon the film's dvd release.
I envy you your upcoming sojourn to Thailand and wish you and your partner the safest of journies. Hopefully you will still be able to keep in touch with us via your blog? It would be wonderful to hear your reactions.
Tim, I appreciate your comment as well, and enjoyed my first dip into Cultural Snow; I anticipate further explorations. It's interesting that you don't consider "kathoey" a pejorative in light of Graeme Storer's assertion that the term, as inexact as it is, reinforces oppressive gender systems. These are never easy determinations and I respect your careful consideration of same. I guess it all depends upon who is defining who and whether such identities are proscribed or self-appointed. Myself, I like the term "disguised angel", flowers being an aspect of the queer domain after all.
A fine review, Peter, and I look forward to your continued explorations of Thai cinema.
Posted by: Maya at August 21, 2006 08:54 AM
It may indeed reinforce oppressive gender systems; but ask a kathoey (who will probably not know what an oppressive gender system is) and s/he (PC pronouns aren't as clearcut as with Western transsexuals) will probably say something like "As long as it's not meant in an offensive way, it doesn't bother me." Context is all.
Posted by: Cultural Snow at August 22, 2006 03:39 AM