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Man enough to be a woman: a Thai transgender kickboxer is at the center of an amazing true story that's now a movie.

Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham says that if he had invented the story of world famous Thai kickboxing champion Nong Toom, nobody would believe it. As shown in the new film Beautiful Boxer, Nong Toom grew up knowing she was a girl mapped in a boy's body. Teased for being effeminate, Nong accidentally fell into the revered, highly masculine sport of Muay Thai (kickboxing) and opted to master it not only to earn a living but also to achieve the ultimate aim of becoming a woman. As Nong's fame grew, the boxer started to take female hormones, and ultimately in 1999 under- went a sex change operation. Now an actress and model, Nong Toom is one of Thailand's biggest celebrities.

It's an extraordinary story, and one that Uekrongtham--who is straight--was drawn to for the conflict inherent in Nong Toom's ambition to achieve total femininity by competing in a thoroughly masculine arena. "Theoretically, I thought that a piece of art could come out of this story," he recalled recently in Los Angeles, where he crone to promote the film with his lead actor, Asanee Suwan, and Nong Toom herself. "When I was writing the screenplay, I discovered something very meaningful about courage. Whether you are gay or straight, a man or a woman, sometimes it's not easy to do what you want to do because of financial constraints or social restrictions. Nong Toom shows us that it's about having the confidence."

Nong Toom, now just 23, wasn't given approval over the script or the casting of handsome 24-year-old Thai kickboxing champion Asanee Suwan. "Ekachai told me that the movie wasn't a tribute film," she says, "so

I knew that there would be bad stuff as well as good in it. I knew Asanee because he is a famous kickboxer and was happy that he would do the boxing side of it, but was worried that he wouldn't understand what I had to go through to become a woman."

For his part, Suwan says that he is confident enough in his own sexuality (he's straight) that taking on the role was not something he feared. "I am man enough to be a woman," he jokes, although he admits he enlisted his family's support before taking on the role. "None of my friends in the boxing world teased me."

Indeed, in a country where transgender people are traditionally portrayed as clowns or jokers in television or film, Beautiful Boxer was marketed as a serious film. "It portrayed a transgender person as a human being, not a clown," says Uekrongtham. "It created a lot of discussion."

Nong Toom says she didn't experiment sexually when she was a man, especially since she was operating in the male world of boxers and had to earn their trust. Hence the issue of sexuality isn't addressed in the film, although Nong Toom explains that she never thought of herself as a gay mail, always a woman.

"Because Thailand is a Buddhist country, there is a lot more tolerance of transgender people," explains Uekrongtham. "Because they are seen as having committed some bad karma in a past life, they are cursed with a mismatch of body and soul. But while transgender people are considered indigenous, homosexuality is considered an imported phenomenon and is still frowned upon."

Goodridge is U.S. editor of Screen International.
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Title Annotation:Film; Beautiful Boxer
Author:Goodridge, Mike
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Mar 15, 2005
Words:554
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