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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