Exclusive Interview with Ekachai Uekrongtham (EK),
Director of Beautiful Boxer
By Rebecca Redshaw
“And one thing about Art, I think he is man enough to be this.
He is man enough to be a woman and not many men are.”
– Beautiful Boxer Director, Ekachai Uekrongtham
Recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Beautiful Boxer is an intriguing, independent feature.
Based on the true story of Thailand’s famed transvestite kickboxer, Beautiful Boxer is a poignant action drama that punches straight into the heart and mind of a boy who fights like a man so he can become a woman.
Believing he’s a girl trapped in a boy’s body since childhood, Parinya Charoenphol (affectionately known as Nong Toom in Thailand) sets out to master the most masculine and lethal sport of Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) to earn a living and to achieve his ultimate goal of total femininity. Touching, funny and packed with breathtaking Thai kickboxing scenes, Beautiful Boxer traces Nong Toom’s childhood, teenage life as a traveling monk, grueling days in boxing camps, and explosive matches where he knocks out most of his opponents across Thailand and Japan.
The following interview with the film’s director, Ekachai Uekrongtham (EK) took place in Bangkok at the 2004 Bangkok International Film Festival.
Rebecca Redshaw: I am interested in your perspective on prejudice
Ekachai Uekrongtham: I do not think I deliberately look for stories of prejudice, but I realize that it is something I was interested in. Before I met Nong Toom [the character on which Beautiful Boxer is based], and before I decided to work on Beautiful Boxer, I was working on another movie about transvestites from Thailand. It sounded good to the investors, but I think for myself I had to find something that I could grab a hold of.
RR: You spent two years of your life making this movie, so it is important that you believe in what you are doing.
EK: I think that we tend to prejudge people, especially people that are different from us. I do not have an agenda to try and make a social statement, but I think that in one way or another, the kind of work we do is able to help people be more open-minded about people who are different.
RR: Well, if you can educate and entertain at the same time, you accomplish that. Which medium do you like best, theater or movies?
EK: I’ve worked in the theater for twenty years, so it is my first love.
RR: And you have always directed or have you done choreography?
EK: No, I am a director, most of the time, and I produce sometimes. Theater is a territory that I am very comfortable in because I know how it works. It is my little world and I like creating something that is never there. It is like a blank canvas and you just paint. Beautiful Boxer is my first film and I found the experience exhilarating. I do not know if it is harder or easier, but to me filmmaking is hard because it is about recreating reality and reality is very hard to capture. It does not work in theater. There is an unnatural state in the theater, you know, so you are not always recreating what is real. But, a movie has to be real, everything has to be real. Theater is very two-dimensional in the way you watch it. But film moves in all dimensions. I think that’s what I like about film.
RR: You really draw people in.
EK: Film is a very visually strong medium. Because I am such a text based theater director I am not experimental. I mean, I directed the Asian premiere of the play, WIT in Singapore. I love text interpretation. I love finding meaning in everything. When you do a film it is quite different because there is another layer, another dimension.
RR: Where so much is said without text.
EK: Yeah. I wrote pages of script for Boxer and while we were shooting I would take it all out. For instance, the scene between the mother and Nong Toom when she wants to ask her permission to box? You know, there was a lot of dialogue, but I didn’t need it. Like the scene where she puts the scarf around her head. So, it is stuff like that that is very exciting to work with.
RR: It is a different canvas as an artist.
EK: Yeah, yeah.
RR: Did you film this picture in sequence?
EK: Out of sequence. We were shooting on almost fifty locations so we were not able to shoot in sequence.
RR: The reason I ask that is because this was the first role for your actor, Asanee Suwan (Art). He was an athlete, a champion kickboxer and he is very good.
EK: He is very good. It was very tough that we were filming out of sequence because, [before filming started] he could draw a graph of his femininity, culture, and whatever, and it goes up like so. But when you shoot out of sequence it is hard even for an experienced actor. And I think a lot of times the work I did with him was [to explore] how he could show the woman within. Sometimes actors are very uncomfortable exploring, but Art was great. I made him stay in a room and walk, do nothing but just walk for half an hour, just walk. He is a smart boy. You know, I told him, “Okay, you walk like you are Art, and now you walk like you are Nong Toom 100%, and now you walk like someone with the heart of Nong Toom. Then you see a difference.” Because I did not want this performance to be an imitating exercise, which would be very easy because she is alive and we are very close.
RR: So, Art did not spend that kind of time with her?
EK: Not much. I sent him off with dates and dinners, just the two of them and I always told him that I wanted him to get to know her, not to compete. You must know the sense of the person and you must know the difference between copying and recreating the role for yourself, you know.
RR: Making it his own.
EK: There was a scene that he had to, I don’t remember in the scene if he was dancing or singing or practicing singing. I was scared that he was unable to do such a demanding sequence, so we shot the whole thing using a steady camera in one take. When we cut it we realized it was too long, because at first I wanted all of it in one whole, long sequence, and he had to do that. We’re talking about a guy who has never acted, never danced, never expressed himself. And he is such a quiet boy. Art does not talk much, and he does not express himself. So this role, especially that moment, required him to physically manifest all his feelings.
RR: Did you have trouble talking him into this role? He is shy. Was he ready to be an actor, especially one playing a transvestite?
EK: He was not very good at the audition, but he had some interesting qualities, so he was short listed. He came back and I put him in rehearsal situations. You know, it was not an audition but I did work with him. And he is able to understand when you give him notes.
RR: Was he reluctant to take this role?
EK: I asked him after that, “This is going to be a crazy commitment; one – you have to quit your boxing career, and two – everyone is going to think you are a transvestite or gay or both.
RR: Which is tough for a young twenty-three year old straight man.
EK: I asked him, “Are you straight or gay or whatever? Because you have to be clear and not feel shy about it.” He said he was straight. “You have to understand all the crazy things that are going to happen. Are you going to be up to it?” He went home to think about it and talk to his parents, and he came back and said, “Yes.” I think what is important is his parents were very supportive. And one thing about Art, I think he is man enough to be this. He is man enough to be a woman and not many men are.
RR: I would like to ask you some technical things. Your background is theater and now you are working with cameras and sets and lights and crew. How large was your crew?
EK: Um, huge, I mean like for big scenes we could have close to… are you talking about crew, or extras, or…?
RR: I was actually asking about people behind the camera.
EK: I mean there would be like fifty people, sometimes less. But I guess what was very helpful for me was that I used to work on big musicals and every night there were 200 crew backstage. With Beautiful Boxer, I was very blessed with a great team. It was the first time I was working with them and I guess being from theater I have a lot of idiosyncrasies. At any given moment, like, whatever is going to happen I have to be able to justify why that moment is happening in a scene. Why this character is walking in a certain way? As in theater, I tend to want the performance to be as natural as possible so I demanded rehearsals, and that is something that producers hate. We were casting and even with an extra with one line, I wanted to rehearse. We were just outside Bangkok, and I would have the actors come to the hotel and rehearse. They do not like doing that, but even extras I rehearse with.
RR: They were not used to that were they?
EK: No. For instance, when they are cheering [in the boxing match], I would tell them to move around. I’d say, “How many of you are cheering for Nong Toom? How many of you hate her? How many of you have never seen her before?” You know, motivate, just motivate. I do not think my actors can reach that emotional peak by just starting when I say, “Action.” Most of them are very good actors, so I want to let them rehearse, to save the cost of the film. We start shooting at some point.
RR: How much footage did you shoot for this film? Did you do a lot of takes?
EK: Not really. Usually about three takes, sometimes two. I guess we had….
RR: That is probably because you rehearsed.
EK: Yes, and also the production team storyboarded everything, so that helped. It lets the whole team know what we are going for, you know, at the location. We had storyboards for everything, particularly the fighting sequences.
RR: Which were very impressive, by the way. This is the first Thai boxing I have ever seen and it was amazing.
EK: It was very difficult to shoot, but we rehearsed a lot. We spent I think three months.
RR: Did you ever watch other boxing movies to get ideas?
EK: I watched movies like “Raging Bull” and I think one thing I wanted to do with this movie was that I wanted very realistic fight sequences. I wanted the punch to go with the action. In a lot of boxing movies, the shots are punched into the camera. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wanted it to be very, how do you say, observational. It is like you are watching what is happening.
RR: You are ring side. Was it tough to get funding for this picture?
EK: No. I mean this project came about because GMM Pictures approached me to do a movie for them.
RR: And you brought this idea to them?
EK: I brought them three ideas and they picked this. I went to see Nong Toom to find an entry point for me to tell her story, because I did not want it to be another funny slapstick comedy.
RR: There is humor in it, but it is a well told story. There are so few of those anywhere in the world. I hope to see Beautiful Boxer again in the United States. Thank you for your time.
EK: Thank you, thank you.