The Yin and Yang of Muay Thai

Recently, I decided to make my own Muay Thai Day, seeing both Thai kickboxing films currently showing in theaters. Of the two, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior was the more traditional martial arts film. And by and large that was not a bad thing. High-steppin’ Tony Jaa stars as Ting, a humble villager waiting to be ordained in his local temple. He has been taught Muay Thai (AKA Thai kickboxing) by the local priest but enjoined, “never to use it.” Then a thief named Don steals the head of the temple’s statue of local deity Ong-bak only a week before a festival honoring the god that happens only once every 24 years. And there’s a draught as well! Someone must go to Bangkok, kick righteous ass Muay Thai style, and return the head before the wells run dry. With that, the movie takes off, as Ting descends into the hell of Bangkok’s underworld and many heads are cracked. The filmmakers owe an obvious debt the HK directors of the 70s and 80s but the film stands on its own. Sure, you’ve seen some of the chase gags before in old Jackie Chan movies, but what makes it worth watching is the incredible athleticism of star Tony Jaa. Holy crap, does this guy have the moves. He does stunts like flipping his body sideways in between two panes of glass maybe a foot apart. And although Muay Thai is most famous for its kicking, the move I liked the best involved jumping up above an opponent and then cracking the top of the skull with a descending elbow. In short, Ong-bak (and Tony Jaa) deliver the martial arts goods. And while he may beat up dozens of enemies, it’s OK because they are evil and he’s fighting for Buddha. Dude.

The yin to Ong-bak’s yang is a film called Beautiful Boxer. This movie is the true story of a professional kickboxer named Nong Toom, who fought under the name Parinaya. This is one hell of a unique sports story. As a youngster, Toom was a femme and constantly bullied. He always liked beautiful things and was attracted to makeup. As you can imagine, this made life in Thailand difficult. When he realized he could help support his struggling family with prize money, Toom went to a Muay Thai camp and began to train. The bullying stopped as Toom developed amazing kickboxing skills.

One day his coach found him putting on makeup and decided it’d make a good shtick. Toom thus began fighting matches in women’s makeup, scandalizing the boxing community. There was much debate over whether Toom was really a transvestite or whether it was just an act. Toom announced that once he had made enough money for his family, he would save up for a sex change operation so he could finally be a woman. The tag line of the movie’s poster is, “He fights like a man so he can be a woman!” If someone tried to make this up, you wouldn’t believe it but it’s true. Toom became a huge star, fought in the biggest arenas, and won enough prize money for his family and his dream. He got the operation, retired from Muay Thai, and now has a career as a model and actress.

Beautiful Boxer is a much different film than Ong-bak. While it does feature a number of kickboxing matches, the martial arts isn’t the real focus and the fighting in Ong-bak is much better. The story is center stage here, as it should be, and an interesting story it is. Star Asanee Suwan does a very good job with the title roll, believable going from girlish shyness to dominating fighter scene to scene. Beautiful Boxer is far from a traditional martial arts film but it’s also well worth seeing if you get the chance.

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