Film Review: "Beautiful Boxer"

Last night I watched “Beautiful Boxer”, a 2003 biopic film based on the life of the Thai transsexual Muay Thai champion Nong Toom. For the average fan of the fighting arts that sentence may be a mouthful; however it is very tastefully done and the fighting, a central part of her story, is excellent. In a nutshell, the film follows the life of Nong Toom (aka Parinya Charoenphol) from boyhood to present day and portrays the highlights of her career as a Muay Thai champion. Initially drawn to Muay Thai competition by the money, she joined a boxing camp as a teenager with the intent of providing her rural family with a better standard of living. The money and the recognition brought by her phenomenal successes eventually enabled her to realize the lifelong dream of undergoing sex reassignment surgery, finally becoming the woman she knew herself to be from early youth. Obviously, this is not your average chop –socky movie.

As martial arts related films go, this one deserves special mention for its clear efforts at authenticity. Rather than groom an actor to do kick boxing scenes, the producers chose instead to cast real-life professional kick boxer Asanee Suwan for the part of Nong Toom. Suwan does an admirable job as both kick boxer and actor; the ring scenes are hard to distinguish from genuine matches. In a reflection of the film’s subject, Suwan spent months training in both classical Muay Thai techniques alongside various forms of Thai dance and ballet to achieve the grace inherent to Toom’s crushing individual style.

Of particular interest to karate-nerds is Toom’s usage of classical Muay Thai training. The film references her habit of collecting old and obscure Muay Thai postures in a scrapbook, which she would study and practice with her trainer. Knowledge of these rather neglected methods was not common in competitive Muay Thai while she was competing, yet she owed much of her successes to several of these moves that would become her signatures (one in particular, “Crushing Medicine” could just as well be called “guaranteed catastrophic brain damage”). To that end, her record is a solid 20-2, 18 of those ending in knock outs. Contrast this for a moment with the perennially fashionable criticism of classical training methods within the martial arts. While martial arts schools large and small, ancient and modern are full of irrelevant “traditions” that generally hinder practical training, here we have an example of someone who has revived her art’s classical methods through rigorous modern training with undeniably effective results. The success of Nong Toom’s unique style eventually took her to Lumpini Stadium, the Carnegie Hall of her sport, and revitalized flagging public interest in traditional Muay Thai.

At least here in the USA, Nong Toom’s art seems to be going through the same period of “diffusion by television” that cemented many of the ridiculous notions about karate in the public mind, and led to the sprouting of many a McDojo. In fact, it seems like anybody between the ages of 17-30 who has ever kicked a heavy bag somehow does/did “Muay Thai.” Several such “Muay Thai” students have popped into our classes at Ferrum, and each has been a major disappointment (one got upset and left after a round of shin kick/leg conditioning- we were training too rough- go figure). I am confident that any one of the testosterone-soaked lot would have his face rearranged by the now post-operative Nong Toom.

Give this film a look on your next free evening- TKRI gives it 5 out of 5 possible Bruised Knuckles.

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8 responses to “Film Review: "Beautiful Boxer"

  1. While Nong Toom used tradition well, Ramon Dekkers KOed Thai champions in Thailand by training in techniques not emphasized by the typical Muay Thai ring fighter from Thailand

    (and he pulled off Thai style techniques to great success against Thai fighters).

    He really emphasized conventional boxing as well as training to do devestating kicks, and he was one of the favorite foreign fighter among Thais (and he suffered tons of injuries with several operations on his leg, he is now retired from the sport after 20 yrs of fighting)

    There are not many good Muay Thai gyms out there, and all of the ones I have seen do shin kick leg conditioning. Like I said before, in Ferrum the guys who came to the class never really trained Muay Thai.

  2. Hi Randy,

    I’ve heard good things about that film too, and from non-martial artists. There’s a trailer here, for anyone who’s curious:

    http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1891172633/

  3. Mr. Karate,

    The guys I mention were from Northern VA, a hotbed of things like “cardio kickboxing” and “cage fighting” classes (as well as Korean dry cleaner shops). I think they were doing Muay Thai just like David Carradine does Kung fu- about as authentic as Lucky Charms are Irish. Even more mystifying was one MT guy who strapped on shin pads when we got into some leg blocking drills.

    Another point that the film made me consider is the relationship between participation in a violent martial art/combat sport and aggression or “fighting spirit.” I don’t think most red-blooded men would be able to conceive of someone like Nong Toom, a makeup wearing, effeminate fighter as anything other than a comedic ploy; but she was overwhelmingly successful while essentially a woman fighting in a man’s body, something that was not at all instinctual or “hardwired” (which means little these days anyways- neuroplasticity has overwhelmingly overtaken the notion of fixed brain functions per location). A match between a transsexual and a traditional male competitor would seem to be an uneven pairing to some; however, Nong Toom tore through her opponents with speed, power and skill that should make most bag-rats envious.

    And at the end of her run she forefitted any future sanctioned competition (women cannot enter the ring) by completing reassignment surgery, showing further still that the competition was a means to an end. Now she continues to train because she likes the grace of the art and the skill of application. To take it one step further, how is her use of a violent combat art to better one’s family, and to develop one’s self, any different than what gets spouted off in dojo kuns?

  4. Adam says, Seriously, I am not Mr. Karate.

    I strap on shin pads also when doing leg blocking drills, that is not considered unacceptable in Muay Thai, even in the top camps here in America and in Thailand. In fact it is an accepted safety measure to make sure the training partners will be able to compete and carry on with their training.

    This is not mystifying, in case your partner hits your leg with too much force and damages your shin or you hit bone by accident (in real matches no shin guards are worn of course)

    Even in sparring shin guards are used, so your shin will be intact for competition.

    Let’s see what the pros who are definately not charlatans recommend when it comes to training low kicks and leg blocking:

    Here is Jerome Le Banner champion in Muay Thai wearing shin guards.

    Here is Alex Gong, another champion wearing shin guards and showing how to practice leg blocking.

    Here are people sparring in Thailand, they are wearing shin guards.

    This is in contrast to practicing low kicks on each other, where you actually kick the other person on the thigh while the other person absorbs it.

    I would think that the pros would know what they are doing by putting on shin guards.

    I condition my shins by kicking a really hard heavy bag, nothing else. No iron pins or bars or such. No trees, either. There are no banana trees in Missouri 🙂

    Nong Toom’s effeminateness, well there was a fighter named Sangtienoi who kissed his opponents in the clinch while in fighting and was nicknamed the “Deadly Kisser”

    Here is Nong Toom’s final match before surgery- really fast kicks can be seen here.



    I also think that women can be conditioned to fight, look at Lucia Rijker.

    Nong Toom demonstrates high kicks on TV show

    Nong Toom still fights in the ring, but against women, and now runs a training camp.

  5. “There are no banana trees in Missouri “- I think one of Dave Lowry’s articles or essays opens up with something along those lines (either way, it’s a great line.)

  6. Mr Karate,

    That isn’t Jerome LeBanner.

    “I also think that women can be conditioned to fight, look at Lucia Rijker.”

    Next you’ll be telling us that you’ve come to the conclusion that they can think! Or that 2+2=4!

    What’s weird about your attitude to shin conditioning in class, Mr Karate, – in the very rare class you’ve actually attended – is that you seem to have to strap on shin pads for any kind of shin conditioning, even against a pad, or against a beginner who is smaller than you and isn’t wearing shin guards. If you are that sensitive, I suggest that your approach to shin conditioning really isn’t working.

    And it’s ridiculous to opine “I also think women can be conditioned to fight” – as if this is a revelation – when you can’t condition yourself.

  7. I think this is the Lowry article:

    http://www.koryu.com/library/dlowry3.html

  8. Adam says, Seriously, I am not Mr. Karate.

    here is the clip of Jerome Le Banner demonstrating Blocking against low kicks.

    If that is not Jerome Le Banner I am Mickey Mouse!

    Here is Alan Belcher, UFC fighter, training with shin guards.

    Here is more sparring in Thailand with shin guards

    more sparring with shin guards

    I would think that there is a real reason behind wearing them- the professionals do who make their living fighting do so, their livelihood depends on correct training and conditioning and making sure they are good to go to deliver devestating low kicks consistently and effectively.

    It does not matter, beginner or not, the shin pads go on when training low kicks like this, against pads obviously you kick without shin pads. Accidents can happen, and they do.

    Now this is how Rob Kaman works with the pads for low kicks with no shin pads-

    Sorry Gill, when I am not in class, I train at the gym as much as I can, due to my not-so-great work schedule. When I can finally return to train again, you will see results, I don’t just sit here and type, I train for real using the limited resources I have.

    I do condition myself, you never see how I train off class, so you can’t make judgements what I do outside of Wash U. I will be definately ready for the next time I show up for class.

    I do condition my shins at home and against the heavy bag. When I return to class someday I will be in much better shape than in the time I do show up for class. I have a busy work schedule, I do the best I can.

    (and if you are wondering where the whole “Mr. Karate” thing comes from it is from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ld3XbUBOlTQ)

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