A market-driven fusion of two of Thailand’s highest-grossing recent cinematic exports—the transvestite sports comedy Iron Ladies and the Muay Thai action opus Ong-Bak—Beautiful Boxer must have seemed like a sure thing during the year and a half it spent in production. Based on the true-life travails of Thai pugilist “Nong Toom,” a country boy who eventually financed his sex change operation by kicking ass in sports domes and small-town stadiums across Asia while accessorized in lipstick and eyeshade, the film’s as high-concept as they come: Rocky in heels.
Designed for international appeal, Beautiful Boxer even strategizes a TKO for the distributors who might be otherwise wary of subtitles: Half of it is narrated—with pitch-perfect, champagne-and-gravel she-male seductiveness—in exotically broken English. That debut director Ekachai Uekrongtham brought a two-fisted background to the project must have seemed a plus as well: He’d already enjoyed successful careers as a film studio executive in Thailand and as a theatrical producer-director in Singapore, where one of his stage hits was a musical about Siamese twins Chang and Eng. His transition to the big screen is not, however, a decisive win—particularly in Thailand, where the film dramatically underperformed last year.
It’s not that Beautiful Boxer‘s young star, Asanee Suwan, isn’t adorable enough, or that Ekachai failed to compensate for his star’s improbably slight stature by focusing on his megawatt smile. But those in search of a liberating treatise about empowered sexuality may find too much of the movie’s erotic potential sublimated in sports metaphors, while those looking for a martial arts matinee will find its feats of physical prowess shriveled next to a fully engorged genre workout like Ong-Bak. It seems some fences just can’t be painlessly straddled—no matter how much clearance your plastic surgeon provides.