Grade: B-

One may well wonder how large an audience there is out in the American heartland for an affectionate docudrama about a transvestite Thai kickboxer whose great goal in life is to have a sex-change operation, but this film will tell us. “Beautiful Boxer” is based on the career of Nam Toom Prinya Charoenphol, the son of a poor rural couple who becomes a champion and a favorite to some by reason of his habit of wearing flamboyant trappings and cosmetics in the ring. It’s made without much finesse and tends to lumber rather than soar, but still possesses a sweetness that’s rather disarming.

The picture introduces its subject later in life, as he’s interviewed by a reporter while dressed in female garb and preparing for the completion of his physical transformation. After demonstrating his fighting prowess by dealing with a bunch of hoodlums who threaten the scribbler, Nam Toom relates the events of his life, beginning with his difficult childhood, when his effeminate ways and preference for girls’ clothes earned him mistreatment from other youngsters and some stern condemnation from his parents, who are impoverished rural workers. He even spent some time as a novice in a Buddhist monastery, which proved uncongenial. One night he reluctantly accompanied his brother–who wanted to be a muay thai fighter–to a match, and accidentally discovered his own latent talent along that line. He then enrolled in a training program under a master named Pi Chart, who recognized his special abilities and selected him for local contests. Nam Toom’s proclivity for wearing makeup in the ring was seized on by a promoter as a device to set him apart and nurture a big-time career, and the young man eventually found his way to Bangkok. But tragedy struck just as he was approaching the pinnacle of success, as Pi Chart fell ill, and Nam Toom’s stated desire for a sex-change caused great controversy. Eventually we see him reduced to the indignity of fighting a woman wrestler in Tokyo as a oddball gender-vs.-gender kind of competition, though the experience does lead his parents to agree to the operation he’s so long wanted.

There’s a certain charm to “Beautiful Boxer,” especially in the performance of Asanee Suwan, who affects a gentle, reticent demeanor outside the ring while demonstrating considerable prowess inside it. The remainder of the cast doesn’t get much beyond the functional, and Ekachai Uekrongtham’s direction is more languid than energized; and though the locales are often very scenic (especially in sequences of young men training in the misty Thai mornings), the rather rough, ragged cinematography by Choochart Nantitanyatada doesn’t do full justice to them. Nor does the film explore the protagonist’s sexuality as fully as it might; he’s continuously referred to as transvestite, but there’s no indication whether he’s gay or straight; the silence on this point is actually quite deafening.

But while the film’s flaws and omissions are obvious, it remains an intriguingly different tale, told with just enough skill to get by, and showcasing a likable and affecting performance. In the wake of the very different “Ong Bak,” it suggests that Thai martial arts movies may be a genre one would be wise to keep an eye on.