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'I don't think about gender. I think about winning'
Parinya Charoenphol fought his way to the top in the macho world of Thai kickboxing. Then he became a woman. Does she like the movie about her life? By Will Hodgkinson
Friday August 19, 2005
In terms of plot twists, it's undeniably brilliant. A poor boy from a village in Thailand overcomes his natural timidity and gentleness to become a champion kickboxer - but only so he can afford a sex change. It would also be preposterous were it not true. The new Thai film, Beautiful Boxer, is the story of Parinya "Nong Toom" Charoenphol, an authentic star in Thailand and one of the most controversial figures to emerge in international sport.
Charoenphol was born into a family of nomads that eventually settled down in Chiang Mai province, and - taking the traditional route for children of poor parents - became a novice monk. He played truant to make money for the family and was expelled from his monastery. At the age of 12, he visited a temple fair at where a kickboxing match offered 500 baht to the winner; goaded by insults about being a sissy, Charoenphol entered and won. Intense training at a muay thai (traditional kickboxing) camp followed, then wins in 20 out of 22 regional matches, and finally nationwide fame. All the while Charoenphol was making visits to the village transvestite, experimenting with makeup, and saving up the money for the sex change he had been planning since childhood.
For a transvestite to invade the sacred and deeply masculine world of kickboxing - women are not allowed to enter a kickboxing ring, let alone fight in one - is a contentious issue. "When Nong Toom first broke into the scene, people thought that she gave muay thai a bad name," explains Ekachai Uekrongtham, the director of Beautiful Boxer. "Then when she revealed herself as a very good kickboxer, she earned respect, but still a lot of people believe that she is tarnishing the image of something sacred. Kickboxing evolved as our ancestors invented ways of turning our bodies into weapons to fight the Burmese, and it is more than just a sport. It's a sacred tradition that is at the heart of our national identity."
One cannot help but feel that Charoenphol might indeed have been tarnishing this sacred tradition when, in one of the more bizarre moments in the history of kickboxing, she was invited to Tokyo to fight Kyoko Inoue, Japan's top leading female wrestler, in 1998. Charoenphol high-kicked and leapt; Inoue did piledrivers and headlocks, and Charoenphol won. After the match, a young Thai woman went up to Charoenphol and slapped her for the insult she was bringing to muay thai . "I felt very bad that I had to hit another woman," is all Charoenphol will say about the experience.
Charoenphol admits that she only started kickboxing to make money, but that she fell in love with it, becoming determined to honour its craft despite her gender inclination. She was attracted to the side of muay thai that is rarely seen in martial arts films: the ancient movements that are as much a ritualistic dance as an act of violence. She kept a scrapbook of illustrations of these movements collected from kickboxing magazines throughout her adolescence, and then asked her trainer to teach them to her. This is how she learned her trademark move Crushing Medicine, which involves jumping in the air and bringing her elbow down onto the head of her unfortunate opponent.
Charoenphol, now such a big star in Thailand that walking down the street constitutes a potential safety issue, speaks in a considered, rather nasal falsetto and looks so poised and ladylike that it is hard to imagine her dishing out punishment in the form of the deadly Crushing Medicine. "I don't equate femininity with weakness," she replies on being asked why she would choose to make money from something so aggressively masculine if she always knew that she was a woman. "I also knew that I had to be strong, and to protect myself and the people I loved. I was born into poverty and there weren't many ways I could earn a lot of money." Does she feel like a man or a woman when she's fighting? "I don't think about gender. I think about winning."
She is also very sweet. Asked how closely the film reflects her life, she replies, "You want the percentage?" Was it difficult to watch someone else playing her on screen? "It's like looking at a mirror that shows images of you in flashback. But I could never imagine someone making a movie about my life as I always think that films are about heroes and I'm not a hero. The film is life's greatest gift to me so far because it makes it easier for people to understand transsexuals, and on a personal level it has helped me to be accepted as a person."
"She's such a person of contradictions," says Uekrongtham, who started work on the film, his feature debut, after directing a hit theatre production about the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. "She set out to master the most masculine activity in order to achieve total femininity. I thought it was fertile ground for exploration, so I went to meet Nong Toom in person and had a very unpleasant experience. She forgot about our little date entirely."
Charoenphol, by then a retired kickboxer, a woman and a national celebrity, left Uekrongtham in no doubt about her femininity. He arranged two more dates with her that she also missed. "It was so much like a woman - forgetting appointments and making people wait," Uekrongtham says. Eventually Uekrongtham called Charoenphol and said that he was coming to see her immediately. She was at a massage parlour and told him that if he wanted to talk, he would have to take a massage next to her. "So I did, and through a long chat I realised how prejudiced I had been about her. The person that I met that night was very different from who I expected. In Thailand you see transsexuals portrayed as camp people whose aim in life is to go after men and do silly things. But the person in front of me was someone who cared for her family, and was very genteel and thoughtful. That was when I realised that there might be something deeper to this extra-ordinary story."
Beautiful Boxer is more serious than its premise might suggest. The real paradox at the heart of Charoenphol's story is that she is so good at such a violent sport, her skill only improving after she discovers a sweat-resistant brand of make-up. Using ancient and obscure moves rarely used by contemporary fighters, she approaches kickboxing as an art form to be mastered with balletic grace, channelling the necessary aggression into elegant moves that flatten her opponents mercilessly.
There is a scene in the film in which the young Charoenphol sagely reflects on her gender situation with the village transvestite, stating that under the karmic laws understood by all Buddhists the bad deeds she committed in a former life have resulted in an imbalance for this one. It is part of a portrayal that stands in contrast to the cliche of bitchy Bangkok ladyboys seducing gormless western tourists. Charoenphol herself has had to deal with this stereotype and fight against being written off as a gimmick, and Beautiful Boxer faced the same problem with Thai audiences. A camp comedy like The Iron Ladies, which tells the story of a cross-dressing volleyball team, is acceptable mainstream entertainment in Thailand, but it came as a shock to see a transsexual presented as a more serious character. "The gay community embraced the film," says Uekrongtham. "Mainstream audiences weren't so sure. But slowly they came round to the idea that transsexuals are not necessarily comic characters."
Asanee Suwan, the young actor in the lead role, has had a life that mirrors that of Charoenphol, with the key difference that he isn't intending to turn into a woman any time soon. A professional kickboxer since he was 12, Suwan is also from a poor rural family, and escaped his situation by climbing to the top of his sport. "The big difference between us is that Nong Toom knew all kinds of moves that I had never seen before," says Suwan. "Before I met her, I thought that Nong Toom was putting on makeup as a gimmick to make her famous. Now I can understand what she had to go through and how brave she has had to be."
Since becoming a woman in 1999 at the age of 18, Charoenphol has worked as an actress and a model, most recently touring her one-woman show Boxing Cabaret. She has not been allowed to take part in a kickboxing fight because of her gender. "I do miss it, but I'm not that far away from it," she says. "I go and see my friends in matches, and I do some training. And I still can't walk past a punch bag without kicking it."
· Beautiful Boxer is released on September 2.