Watch a clip from the film It would be tempting to call Beautiful Boxer, the true story of the transvestite Thai kickboxer Nong Toom (Asanee Suwan), the Driving Miss Daisy of transgender films. By that I mean it’s a well-made, emotionally involving mainstream movie that draws audiences into a subject they might otherwise avoid. It’s become fashionable to deride Bruce Beresford’s film; Morgan Freeman must have had an inkling of that sentiment when, just before the Driving Miss Daisy was released, he was asked if it was demeaning for a black actor to play a chauffeur and he answered, “God save us from well-meaning white liberals.” And black ones, he might have added. The movie’s detractors looked at Freeman’s Hoke, saw that he wasn’t Stokely Carmichael, and concluded he must be Uncle Tom. Had Driving Miss Daisy indulged in Stanley Kramer-style fantasy, had it shown the civil rights movement transforming the South into a bastion of tolerance overnight, or Hoke making fiery speeches demanding an end to segregation, or Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy suddenly made sensitive to the sufferings of blacks because of the prejudice she endures as a Jew, had it, in short, violated the reality of the era and the psychological reality of the characters, well, then the movie would have been “progressive.”
The movie’s detractors missed its shrewdness: Hoke and Miss Daisy transcend the limitations of their roles without renouncing them—for both of them, that would be like renouncing themselves. The detractors missed the larger picture, too. It’s easy to spurn mainstream movies that take on prejudice because they often seem tepid and conservative. What goes unacknowledged is that it takes less courage for filmmakers working outside the mainstream to risk controversy—non-mainstream audiences expect nothing less—than it does for filmmakers whose work will be marketed to a wide audience. Obviously, that approach can be used as a rationale for praising all manner of dreck from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Philadelphia. But the movies I have in mind don’t preach. They present characters, not case studies. Had American audiences gone to The Sum of Us, as Australian audiences did, they would have seen a carefully rendered story of the closeness between father-and-son roommates, one straight (the father, Jack Thompson) and one gay (the son, a pre-stardom Russell Crowe). Significantly, the son’s gayness figures into the plot only when outsiders make it an issue. For the father, it’s just a fact about his son, like the color of his eyes or hair.
How do you get mainstream audiences to see a movie about a country boy who dreams of being a woman? In the case of Beautiful Boxer, a success in its native Thailand, the story of Nong Toom had what the American studios call—God help us—”pre-awareness” in its own country. Lured in by the promise of learning the “true life story” of a celebrity they knew, Thai audiences got a movie that, without falling back on speeches or—pardon the expression—gender theory, challenged rigid definitions of what it means to be masculine or feminine.
Good directors can suggest the movie they’re going to make in the first five minutes, sometimes in the first shot. In the opening shot of Beautiful Boxer—which shows oil being massaged into a fighter’s torso as he prepares for a match—the first-time director Ekachai Uekrongtham brings out what sports movies nearly always try to hide: the sexual appeal of the bodies they offer up as the objects of heroic admiration. We’re watching an image of power and machismo—a fighter’s sculpted chest—in a position traditionally associated with the female: recumbent, passive, an object for adoration. Nong Toom disliked the violence of Muay Thai (though he was so good at it, he managed to defeat most of his opponents with one swift kick) and fought mostly to earn money to support his parents. His trainer Pi Chart (pronounced pee-sha and played by Sorapong Chatree) sees a chance to make Toom stand out as a fighter by encouraging him to wear make-up in the ring. The press treats him as if he’s the Thai Gorgeous George. They think it’s a publicity stunt but don’t know that Toom’s transvestitism is a panacea, and an increasingly inadequate one, for his real desire to be a woman.
Throughout the movie, Ekachai plays up the tension between the violence of kickboxing and Toom’s gentleness. The movie shows us that the more make-up he wore into the ring, the more enraged (and, thus, sloppier) his opponents became. In one scene, Toom walks over to an opponent he has just defeated and kisses him on the cheek. “They don’t know that I kiss to say I’m sorry,” he says.
In movie terms, transgendered characters are what gay characters used to be: tortured souls just ripe for all manner of melodramatic suffering. Asanee Suwan, himself a professional kickboxer, plays Nong Toom as a sunny character, which is a relief. His appeal is that he’s fey and somewhat coquettish, with a sweet, shy grin. In one scene, his buddies at the kickboxing camp decide to treat him to a hooker to relieve him of his virginity. The woman takes off her top and says to Toom, “You’ve seen mine, now let’s see yours.” The great joke of the scene is that he’s as enraptured with her breasts as any other young man would be, but for entirely different reasons. Admiringly he tells her, “I don’t have them yet.”
Part of what’s so refreshing about a movie like Beautiful Boxer (or Driving Miss Daisy or The Sum of Us) is that even with their built-in tolerance lessons, they’re generous enough to allow that people are capable of change, or at least decency. Toom’s friends at the training camp go from making nasty cracks about the trannies they see on TV to feeling real camaraderie for him. Sure, they cover up and act like swooning ditzes when he enters the communal shower, but that’s the joshing that makes him part of the gang. One of the movie’s best moments comes when Toom is completing the paperwork for his sex-change operation. The only obstacle left is the consent of his father (Nukkid Boonthong), who’s never been able to hide his shame over his son’s effeminacy. Just as the father is about to sign the authorization form, he stops and announces he can’t agree to the operation. Looking hard at the doctor, he tells the man he can’t agree until he’s assured his son will be safe.
The ambition of Beautiful Boxer is contained in that moment, in the implicit faith that, like Toom’s father, the audience will take the opportunity to go beyond themselves and show compassion for something experience hasn’t prepared them for.