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Filmfest DC

'Boxer': Mano a Mano, With Makeup

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page C08

Think Rocky with lipstick.

The concept of a male boxer in full makeup is ripe with irony, and director Ekachai Uekrongtham uses it effectively, albeit overdramatically, at times. Uekrongtham's debut film, "Beautiful Boxer," tells the true story of Nong Toom, a kickboxing champion who in 1999 underwent surgery to become a woman.

When your story is this good, and when your lead actor is this great, it's sometimes best to keep it simple -- and save for the one-too-many flashbacks and dream sequences, there's a gritty simplicity in "Beautiful Boxer."

Asanee Suwan (center) with peers at a Thai kickboxing camp, which he enters to save up money for surgery. (Gmm Grammy Via Filmfest Dc)

In Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, being transgender is seen as a form of bad karma. It's fate. So Toom's parents, poor farmers, accept him early on. The film follows Toom in his younger years as a monk trying on lip gloss; in a temple festival where he finds himself thrown into a kickboxing match; in his teens at a sports camp, where a coach decides he isn't cut out for Muay Thai, the lethal sport of Thai kickboxing, only to encourage him later on. There's money in kickboxing, Toom realizes, and it's a way for him to help his family -- and save up money for surgery.

Slowly, after winning fight after fight, he begins to wear makeup in the ring, which some dismiss as a gimmick. It isn't, of course. Yet the more he puts on, the harder his opponents kick him. What choice does he have but to kick back harder?

Asanee Suwan -- a kickboxing champ -- gives a performance that's equal measures subtle and complex. Inside the ring and out, putting on mascara or lifting weights with his teeth, Suwan is utterly believable as Toom, who, by the way, is now a model and actress in Thailand, teaching Muay Thai but no longer fighting.

Beautiful Boxer is 114 minutes long (in Thai and English with subtitles) and showing tonight at 7 and Monday at 9 p.m., at Regal Gallery Place.

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