Thailand’s most famous *Kathoey is Parinya “Nong Toom” Charoenphol, a former champion kick boxer, whose stoic story is captured in the bio-pic, “Beautiful Boxer.” Set in her mystical homeland of Thailand, this film is exquisitely filled with metaphor and symbolism. Of beauty and brutality. And has lyrical dialog that captures the essence of the Thai culture. Right at the outset there is a beautiful juxtaposition of Toom the boy and the woman he transitions into.
Parinya, one of three children, was born of poor parents. Their family moved around quite often, so his mother and father could follow the available work. They finally settled and maintained a lychee plantation. Parinya affectionately know as “Nong Toom’, felt he identified as a girl from a young age. His feeling was confirmed when he attended a festival and felt a connection, watching the grace of the women performers. Throughout the film, Toom displays an effeminate comportment and acts as if he is carrying a great weight. Being kathoey, transgender, he does.
Toom’s mother shows the greatest sympathy toward her son and the conflict he carries. His father is far less understanding, as his son’s effeminate nature, and following the path of being a transvestite, is an affront to a family’s patriarchy, in Thai society.
As a child, Toom is sent to learn the ways of the Muay Monk. He learns of the ten precepts, and is fearful that his ‘sinful’ thoughts, on feeling he is a girl, will bring bad karma and suffering to his parents. Toom goes home to find his mother being evicted, for their home being built of illegal wood, and his father gravely injured from a great fall from a cliff. He then leaves the temple each night to work and bring his jailed mother food and to buy medicine for his father.
On one occasion, Pi Nid, offers kindness and food to Toom as he weeps on the jail steps being turned away from seeing his mother. Pi Nid negotiates Toom’s mother’s release and even takes Toom to see the traveling Monk for medicine for his father.
If it’s your destiny, you may even get what you wish for in this life
Toom, caught returning to the temple, is disciplined buy the head Monk, and he is instructed to follow the traveling Monk. Toom faithfully, but not enthusiastically, follows the Monk across Thailand. He asks of the Monk, “Sir, if I do good deeds in this life, will I get what I wish for in the next life?” To which the Monk replies, “If it’s your destiny, you may even get what you wish for in this life.” Toom is given permission to return home, and does so.
He attends a temple fair and is picked to fight in a kick boxing match because he is equal in height to a boy who wants to fight. Toom surprisingly defends himself with a sweeping kick to the boy’s head, and wins the 500 Baht prize money. Toom’s success in the kick boxing ring is met with disdain from his father.
Just imagine what you want most in life is up there…and run for it
Toom and his brother, Tam, rush into a kick boxing camp. Executing a powerful kick, Toom is invited to train. There is a beautiful metaphor of running up stairs, where Toom stops, unable to continue. Pi Chart, his trainer, asks if he can continue, and he shakes his head no. Pi Chart says, “Just imagine what you want most in life is up there…and run for it.” Toom continues up the steep steps that disappear in the mist.
Nong Toom is met with derision the first time he wears make up in the ring. So much so, he apologizes the owner of the kick boxing camp for bringing disgrace. The owner sees it as a gimmick to promote his camp and gives Toom hundreds of Baht(Thai currency) to buy waterproof make up. There is an awkward dinner where all the other boys are ridiculing a transvestite on TV. Toom is deeply uncomfortable, and tries to laugh, so as not to be found out that he feels he is a woman.
Juxtaposing the brutality of fighting with beauty of kick boxing, Toom masters all the highly skilled moves, coveted by his trainer, Pi Chart. He goes on to become a masterful and highly accomplished kick boxer, bringing great pride to his camp. He gets invited to Lumpini Stadium -the premier fighting venue. Here he is exposed to another transvestite, and begins taking hormones.
Am I a woman in a boxer’s body, or an animal in a circus show
As he continues taking hormones, he loses his strength, and his prominence in the ring. He is eventually banned from Thai boxing for being a woman. Females are forbidden to box in Thailand. Some time later, he goes to Japan for a publicity match with Japan’s prominent wrestler. Here, Toom is abased by a young Thai girl. This is another low moment for Toom, who continues to fight his toughest opponent, himself. “Am I a woman in a boxer’s body, or an animal in a circus show?”
This operation will merely enable his body and his soul to co-exist more harmoniously
Toom eventually saves enough to have her gender reassignment surgery. Her father refuses to sign the consent unless the surgeon guarantees Toom will not end up a cripple. The doctor has the most affectionate line in the movie, which also encapsulates the emotion of every transgender individual. “Sir, your son’s heart has been emotionally crippled for a long while now. This operation will merely enable his body and his soul to co-exist more harmoniously.”
Toom, now a fully transitioned female, attends a kick boxing match, and is met with great celebrity. She watches a match begin, where a young boy wears make up and performs a dance, in much the same manner as she did as a young boxer. She approaches the ring and asks if he is transgender, to which the boy shakes his head no and points at his coach. “From now on, whether you fight in here and out there, you fight from here(places hand on heart), okay?” Toom wipes off the young boy’s lipstick, he smiles and nods yes.
“Beautiful Boxer” is an poignant and moving portrait of sacrifice and determination to attain one’s dream. A 2004, G’’MM’ Pictures release, it is available for streaming on Amazon and on DVD. The movie quality on Amazon streaming is a bit soft, making the credits a challenge to read.
Parinya (Charoenphol) Kiatbusaba, “Nang Toom,” played the Beauty Parlor Masseuse in “Beautiful Boxer.” She is the most famous kathoey in Thailand, going public in 1998. She began taking hormones while still boxing, and would occasionally kiss her defeated opponents on the head, as a way of saying she was sorry for hurting them. She retired from professional boxing in 1999, to undergo gender reassignment surgery, while still coaching, and modeling and acting. She returned to boxing in 2006.
*In Thailand, there is no word that translates the English ‘transgender’. The word ‘Kathoey’ is used to identify transgender individuals, and is loosely translated in English as ‘ladyboy’ or a variant of the term.
mir, irini, peace, amn,