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Fighting like a man for womanhood

Wed 1 Jun 2005 In: True Stories View at NDHA

Beautiful Boxer is the critically acclaimed movie based on the true story of champion transgender Thai kickboxer Nong Toom, who fought like a man to become a woman. He fought his opponents in full make-up, something many thought was merely a gimmick to enrage his opponents – who always ended up flat on their backs KO'd. Many thought he was a disgrace to Thailand. He eventually used the prize money from his fights for a life-transforming gender change operation. spoke to Beautiful Boxer director Ekachai Uekrongthom at the NZ premiere of the film at the Asia Film Festival, discussing his own journey from ignorance to understanding around issues of gender and sexuality, and how the real-life inspiration for the film feels about seeing her extraordinary life captured on film. GAYNZ.COM: How was the film received in Thailand? EU: I think it generated some interesting discussion, because in Thailand people are used to seeing transgender people or gay people portrayed as comic characters on television. I think people are a little bit uncomfortable at the beginning [of the film] because I think they didn't expect to come and actually feel something. They tend to come and laugh at the characters. It generated positive reactions I feel. It's very encouraging for me that the gay community, the transgender community, really embraced the film because when I was working on it I didn't really know anything much about transgendered people and – honestly – I had a bit of prejudice against them, just because I didn't know what they are like, so its very encouraging for me that people in the transgender community embraced the film. There was one professor who is a transvestite but very well respected and he came out to speak in support of the film and I was very touched by that. GAYNZ.COM: At several points there is recurring imagery of roads that stretch to the horizon, or large staircases. Was that kind of symbolism important throughout the journey? EU: Yes, very important to me because I tend to see some key images whenever I approach a play or a film, I tend to see some strong visual images that represent something about the film and about the characters. Most of the time I have those images earlier, and I move the story to those images so that it has some kind of power. To me the film is an emotional and physical journey, so I have a lot of journey-type visuals that the character has to face, like the scene where he was a little boy and he has to walk that road. He is going to be alone but he needs the support and understanding from the older ones... he has a bit more courage to move on. He's lucky in a way... she's lucky that she has a very supportive group of people around her. If you see her in person you'd be amazed by how together she is despite what she has gone through and I think a lot of that has to do with the love that she has received from people close to her. Her mother is an amazing person... strong yet very very passionate and very warm. I think without her knowing she modelled herself after her mother... she always tells me that even though she wants to be a woman she wants to be a strong woman. She doesn't want anyone to trample on her. She has these very strong feelings towards people who lead her deeper. GAYNZ.COM: It seems to be something that you find in transgendered people that despite making a transition, they retain the strongest elements of their former physical character. EU: And in everyone of us we have both a feminine streak and a male streak and I think a lot of men are uncomfortable dealing with the feminine side. That's why I always say that a good actor has to be so comfortable with his own sexuality that he is able to be vulnerable because acting requires you to be vulnerable. GAYNZ.COM: For the actor who plays Nong, Asanee Suwan, that must have been a very challenging part for him to play. EU: He has adapted to attack this role. He is actually a professional kick-boxer who has never acted in his whole life, and as a kick boxer you are trained not to express yourself because your opponent will see in the eyes what you are thinking so he spends a life shielding what he sees. GAYNZ.COM: How did you bring those emotions out? EU: One main reason why I cast him was that he shared very similar life experiences as Nong because he went into kickboxing to help his family and he suffered a lot when he was young because he was poor, he didn't know where the next meal was going to come from. So I tapped into that kind of shared experience to pull out some of his painful moments in his life to use in the film. And he is quite confident in his sexuality, he is straight by the way, and he is not afraid to go to the other side to explore. Some actors are not willing to go that journey. GAYNZ.COM: He doesn't resort to stereotypes or camping it up, he's very natural. EU: You need to see the real Nong Toom to know that she is not a campy character... she doesn't see herself a transgender person, she sees herself as a woman. My style is very simple, I just want people to feel something. If an actor feels something we just might be able to see it, but if you try to show us something we will never feel it. I mean, even if you feel something we may not even see that and I need to help you as a director with a little bit of tricks here and there so that we can see how you feel. If you start showing I go home. I used to walk off until he changes from just faking it. And I think he knows the difference between being and acting. In Thailand, people tend to show off because they think acting is showing off. It is a very interesting experience for me to go against that, to try to tone down everything because the camera is there to capture. He was put through very rigorous exercises – I sent him to ballet classes... it had nothing to do with the show but I wanted him to not underestimate what it is like to be a woman, to be so-called gentle and feminine. I think he realised that ballet is something that is as hard, if not harder, than kickboxing. It was a way of making him respect women, respect transgender people and respect what it means to be gentle, because to him if you behave in a feminine way you are weak. GAYNZ.COM: What does Nong Toom think of the film? EU: When she saw it the first time she told me she was too stressed thinking about what the rest of the world thought of her. She only saw it gain with her mom after the premiere on a smaller screen, and she was really touched and she said she cried to see her life and to be reminded of all the pain she sent through... and also some of the happy stuff. She said “I should have worn waterproof mascara.” She is a big supporter of this film... she said something really nice, that for someone like her... you know there are hierarchies in society and being a transgender puts her really low, so she said that she was the last person to have ever thought that her life would be made into a movie... because we make movies about heroes and she is really grateful. I think a lot of people gave her good feedback so she thinks maybe its meaningful. In the beginning she was quite reluctant to do the film because, who wants to have their whole life on the screen, and it is not always very flattering. But at the end she was very supportive of the film. She wanted to come here [to New Zealand] but she is busy rehearsing a one woman show, a kickboxing cabaret where she will sing, dance and act, and tell people some of her life experiences – like what she thinks of men, what she thinks of kickboxing. And I think there is interest from other countries so she may take it on a little tour. GAYNZ.COM: It's a very compassionate film, you don't feel like you're watching a freak show. What drew you to the story to start with? EU: In the beginning I was quite interested in her character because the body is a very contrasting element, you know the yin and yang, the male and female, and to me that was a good starting point, good drama. But I wasn't quite sure in the beginning whether I wanted to spend my life making a film about a transgendered person and a lot of my friends thought it a mistake to even try to do that, because before you even start, people pigeonhole the film. But after speaking to the real Nong Toom several times I realised that in the extraordinariness of her life I thought I could find something that might be meaningful to others who might not share the same ambition. The bottom line is really someone who is trying to find courage to just understand himself first, and then tell the world “This is me,” and try to stand against all the prejudices and the social pressures. I think all of us go through, but not as drastic. But in drama you push things to the extremes to make a point. In her case, her life operated at two very opposite extremes, so I think it allows you to say something very basic. I also saw an opportunity to show both the emotional journey as well as the physical journey of the character, and its very rare that you get a chance to do that with a character. I guess I fell in love with the character.     Chris Banks - 1st June 2005

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Wednesday, 1st June 2005 - 12:00pm

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