This amazing film is based on the true story of Parinya Charoenphol, known to everyone as Nong Thoom – the champion kickboxing transvestite. Described as a living paradox – he fought like a man in order to become a woman – Nong Thoom’s story is an incredible tale of one effeminate boy’s determination to do whatever it took to raise the money to turn himself into the woman that he had always felt that he was.
The story in itself is moving enough. But Uekrongtham’s superb direction lifts this movie into the ranks of truly entertaining cinema. The film starts with a young American journalist going in search of Nong Thoom to write her story. He tries to track her down in Bangkok’s infamous red light district, Patpong. Suddenly he is accosted by a group of hoodlums but is rescued by the whirling feet of an unseen figure who flies through the air and demolishes the gangsters, landing perfectly on her glamorously stilettoed feet. She then proceeds to tell the journalist her life story.
Nong Thoom was an effeminate boy from the start and Uekrongtham derives much comedy from the young child’s interest in girls’ clothes and make-up. Even as a novice monk he insists on keeping some lip-gloss, on the basis that it isn’t actually lipstick. Born to a poor family he tries to think how he can help to earn money for them all. As a young teenager he ends up in a kickboxing fight, against his own inclination, but he knocks his opponent out with one mighty kick and a career is born.
At this point you wonder how the director will get us through to the climax without the film becoming a rather long, dull and predictable biopic; but in fact, the kickboxing training scenes and early bouts are fantastic, full of dynamism and full-on action that make you realise what a tough profession it is. Uekrongtham interlaces the action with little comic vignettes or moments of pathos, such as Nong Thoom’s excitement when he is given his first ever make-up set. As his transvestism becomes ever more integral to his life it becomes difficult to see how this can be combined with his boxing. One day he decides to fight in make-up and though he faces ridicule and scorn he wins the fight handsomely. His manager senses a great marketing strategy and encourages him to carry on wearing the make-up, as long as it’s waterproof! Abused by many of his opponents before their fights, Nong Thoom proves himself to be by far the better and tougher boxer, winning all the way to the championships in Bangkok. He kisses his defeated opponents because he says: "I don’t like hurting strangers."
His boxing bouts attract ever more razzmatazz and culminate in an ill-advised trip to Japan where he fights the infamous female pro-wrestler Kyoko Inoue (playing herself) and eventually wins but realises he has just become a near freak show. Finally he takes the decision to have his sex-change operation.
It makes for a very exciting, funny and moving story. Nong Thoom’s dedication to a sport for which he has no obvious love is impressive and his sincerity and desire to be true to himself is a salutary lesson to anyone. The kickboxing action is exhilarating and occasionally takes the breath away with its speed and power. Beautifully shot throughout, the colours seem to become ever more vivid, in tandem with Nong Thoom’s make-up and costume. The pacing is excellent and what could have been a rather well-meaning but obvious film, is constantly entertaining and full of fun, without appearing shallow. A great story and a great film.