“Curiosity, basically,” Dania said. “I’d heard about it but never actually watched it before.”
She could tell from the reactions during the film –– none negative, but none enraptured –– that her friends had mixed opinions on Beautiful Boxer. As a very early example of a transgender biography on film, it was replete with issues that would sink it for a modern viewer.
“It’s a male actor playing the lead, right?” Gwen asked. On screen, the name Asanee Suwan scrolled by, in line with Nong Toom and her deadname.
“A male boxer, yes,” Dania said. “He had never acted professionally before this, he was chosen so he could nail the fight scenes.”
Gwen raised an eyebrow, turning the information over. “That’s something,” she finally spoke.
“And when was this?” Eleanor asked. “2005?”
“2003 in Thailand, 2005 in America.”
Dania relaxed into the couch, leaving Eleanor and Gwen both sitting more upright. They both stared into the screen, looking beyond the names rolling by, attempting to replay the kaleidoscopic shots in the film.
Looking away, Dania sighed silently. She had worried about recommending Beautiful Boxer at all. The film was a rather ham-fisted treatment of a transgender biopic, with all the expected scenes of social shame and makeup testing that stained the early models of the genre. The male actor in the lead alone could cause some people to toss the film out altogether.
And despite this –– almost because of it –– there was something about the film that drew Dania in. Yes, the film was rougher than modern standards for depictions of transgender characters allow. But it was also made before those standards were set. And, unlike other media that featured men dressing as women for comedic effect, the tone of Beautiful Boxer was wholly supportive of Nong Toom’s transition. Even bullies, taunting the young boxer in the ring, used the correct pronouns.
“I don’t…” Eleanor said, straining to weigh her dueling opinions. “See, there’s a real part of me that isn’t letting me say that I don’t hate it.”
“Isn’t letting you…that you don’t…” Dania attempted to convert Eleanor’s double negative. “So you do hate it?”
Eleanor squinted, her eyes knit up together in a contemplative sneer. “Well, I don’t, and there’s the problem, right? I definitely don’t hate…the film,” Eleanor clarified. “I don’t like…the ways it tells the story, but the film…like, if you’re talking about structure, pacing, choice to tell this story…”
Eleanor searched for another element to compliment in the film. She had sat through their viewing in a pool of simmering unease, with only momentary glimpses above the surface. But those moments above…
“…the fight choreography, and the way it’s shot…” she added, impulsively.
“If you can’t get over the male actor in the lead, I get it.”
“I don’t think he does a bad job in the role,” Gwen said, “but yeah, it really should be a trans performer.”
“I know,” said Dania. “That’s not really ignorable. I shouldn’t have recommended it…”
“No, don’t beat yourself up about it,” Gwen reassured. “I still enjoyed watching it, for sure.”
“Really,” Eleanor stated.
“For sure,” Gwen said. “How many films about transgender characters existed in 2003? Especially ones that actually took the drama seriously? Accounting for the change in social standards, the film is a fascinating early example of how to portray a trans character respectfully.”
“Hold on a minute,” Eleanor said, standing up. She sat down across from Gwen –– an unobstructed face-off. “I have questions about the gender coding in the entire movie. You wanna discuss, let’s discuss, but don’t throw around ‘respectfully’ just yet.”
Gwen’s hands raised, defensively. “Fair, fair,” she cautioned. “Let’s acknowledge right away that no one here is trans, and we don’t get to say what is or isn’t ‘correct.’ representation on screen”
“I’m not arguing ‘correct,’ I’m arguing against saying the film is ‘respectful’ before we pick it apart.”
“I would say the film is…complex,” Dania tossed out, preventatively. “Multi-layered. There’s stuff in it that works and stuff that doesn’t.”
Eleanor, dropping her shoulders, blinked. “That I can accept.”
“Thematically, the film nails it,” Gwen argued. “The question at the center of the film is more complex than ‘is a transgender identity valid or not?’ It’s a greater question of what gender expression even entails, in unclear circumstances like those for Nong Toom. The scenes where she’s watching the men wrestle, or participating in the wrestling, and it’s not immediately clear whether or not we’re supposed to read the scene as beautiful or grotesque –– that sort of mixed-messaging is all through the film.”
“I would argue,” Eleanor said, before adding, “respectfully…”
“I have issues with that particular scene,” she continued. “Yes, there’s confusion, but there’s also a re-enforced binary. They cut from scenes of the men wrestling to the women putting on makeup. Later on, when Nong Toom becomes a wrestler professionally, she can only succeed and make a name for herself by embracing the most cis-normative expressions of the gender. Makeup in the ring. Kissing her opponents.”
“Well, I think it’s more complex than that,” Dania said. “I mean, remember that she’s still doing all thise gender expression while playing a sport that’s typically male-dominated.”
“Precisely,” said Gwen. “Nong Toom’s entire life story was a repudiation of gender norms. Even if she was presenting traditionally female, she still had to define her own expression within a man’s space, as a wrestler.”
“Before we get too far down the rabbit hole here,” Eleanor cautioned, “I will say this: I certainly respect Nong Toom, and her life, and her story. It makes for a great movie, and this film –– for all it’s flaws –– is a compelling version of that story. My issue is not with the subject matter, but with how they depicted it, so if we could focus on that…”
“Right, right,” Gwen waved away. “I will focus.”
“May I speak?”
Dania cleared her throat. “So I haven’t seen the movie before. But what intrigued me to watch it in the first place was the plot synopsis when I looked it up. Do you notice any big scenes that are missing from the movie?”
Gwen and Eleanor, puzzled, paged through the film in their minds. “A missing scene?” Gwen wondered aloud.
“Do you mean, like, there’s no scene where the parents reject Nong Toom, or something like that?” Eleanor asked.
“Sort of like that,” answered Dania. “What I’m getting at is that there’s no scene where Nong Toom ‘becomes’ a woman, whatever that means. Like, you watch other media focusing on transition narratives, even modern ones. And you have the turning point, the point where a coded male character becomes a female one. I think this movie avoids that. Part of it is having Nong Toom show up as female to begin, in the flash forward scene. But even from the beginning, when a younger actor is playing her, I never get the sense that she is realizing that she’s a woman. Like, she knows from the start.”
“The younger Nong Toom is certainly consistent,” Gwen agreed. “The transgender notion of always having been your true gender, but feeling trapped in the ‘wrong body’ for your childhood –– that I do get here. It’s less ‘being a woman is cool,’ and more ‘being a woman is right.'”
“Not to mention,” Dania continued, “It’s not a story about one trans person against a world of indifference. Isn’t it nice to see a story where the person undergoing the transition has the support of a community of people? Where the coach is willing to stand up for Nong Toom outside the ring? Where the mother is defending her daughter to her husband –– and where the husband responds not with violence or anger, but with indifference? Isn’t that so much more devastating?”
“That’s all very true,” Gwen said. “The transition storyline is interwoven nicely with the wrestling ‘sports movie’ storyline, and neither feel like they’re fighting for space. The climaxes feel paired in a way that’s very satisfying. Nong Toom achieves comfort in her own skin by way of her boxing success, not on top of.”
“And it’s still a male actor,” Eleanor reminded.
“Yes,” Gwen said, before doubling down. “Yes, that’s true. In craft, the film makes errors we would not accept today. Then again, remember what Dania said: they cast the actor for his boxing over his acting.”
“That’s the story, as far as I know,” Dania said. “The Thai film world is smaller than Hollywood, obviously, but there are certainly trans actors they could have cast.”
“If you look at the film from the lens of a sports movie,” Gwen added. “As opposed to a film about transgender transition –– a film structure that didn’t truly have tropes established by 2003 –– considered like a sports movie, it makes sense to cast your lead performer with someone proficient in the sport.”
“Hmmm,” Eleanor said. “I suppose…there is merit to the argument that it is about a transgender character, without focusing on their trans-ness as a major source of conflict, and still without decentering their identity as part of the narrative. On those grounds, I can see how it is a step forward, from where things were in 2003.”
“That’s really what it is, a step,” Dania said. “A step with one foot still planted in the older, problematic way of telling these stories. But you step with one foot so you can later step with the second. Right?”
“I’m still not going to enjoy it,” Eleanor said. “Knowing it’s a male performer takes me out of it too much. But I can accept that it…I guess exists?”
Eleanor considered if that was the right phrase.
“Whatever my feelings, it certainly makes for a discussion, if nothing else.”
“You don’t want to see it banished from the history of trans representation on film,” Gwen suggested.
“Well, I never said that,” Eleanor responded. “Bad examples are still examples.”
“I know that the real Nong Toom liked it,” Dania said. “In 2003, at least. I wonder what she thinks of it now.”
“I wonder how Hollywood would mess with it,” Gwen said.
“Oh, they’d mess it up even worse,” groaned Eleanor. “They’d probably not even cast a Thai actress.”
As Gwen and Dania laughed, Eleanor considered this potential Hollywood remake of Nong Toom’s story. It threw Beautiful Boxer into softer light; there certainly was a worse way to tell this story, after all.
Image Source: The Straits Times