Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Two recent Thai films, Beautiful Boxer and Ong Bak, respond to Thai Boxing’s reputation as the grisliest of combat sports by exposing its aesthetic possibilities.
Muay Thai, also known as Thai Boxing, is the national sport of Thailand. In Thai communities, this style of combat is considered to be the descendent of the Krabi Krabong tactics of ancient Siamese armies, and so its legacy remains into the 21st century as a revered traditional cultural form. However, Muay Thai’s recent introduction into the West has redefined the ancient sport in popular Thai discourse. The fact that Muay Thai seems excessively brutal (at least through American eyes) has earned it a reputation for being an “edgy” alternative to Anglo-Saxon boxing, a reputation Thai filmmakers like Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer) and Prachya Pinkaew (Ong Bak) have responded to in a surprising way: through beautification. In these films Muay Thai remains as bloody as ever -- with head-butting, elbowing, and kicking being usual spectacles of flesh-on-flesh gorging and beating -- yet it’s hard to ignore the degree to which Muay Thai has become defined against other forms of combat such as American boxing and Chinese martial arts.
Beautiful Boxer uses beautification as a subversive strategy against conservative Thai conceptions of gender. Based on a true story, the film traces the life of Nong Toom, a young man who yearns for a sex-change operation and decides to earn the massive sum by becoming a professional boxer. The film certainly emphasizes in graphic detail the bloody consequences of the sport, which effectively masculinizes it. Not surprisingly, Nong Toom is deemed too feminine for the sport, and it is to the amazement of his friends and family that he would succumb to that kind of de-feminization to attain his goals. Yet it is precisely through that swapping of gender roles -- as well as the pleasure of seeing Nong Toom beat silly the male fighters who ridicule his sexuality -- that gives the film its subversive edge. What incites Nong Toom’s interest to participate in the most manly of sports in order to lose his manhood is a radical possibility: that Muay Thai, like the traditional Thai dance which is his true passion, can be beautiful. For each fight, Nong Toom appears in make-up and costume, and while this effectively turns him into a clown-like spectacle, it also mocks the exclusionary traditions of the sport.
As if trying to subvert its reputation as simply a rowdier, more exotic version of American boxing, the film emphasizes beautification to define it as essentially “Thai.” The film consistently juxtaposes scenes of Muay Thai and traditional Likay theater, such as in an early scene when the two spectacles are seen side by side at a village fair, or later in the film, when in a dream sequence we see boxing and theater superimposed upon each other. Furthermore, the makeup and costume that Nong Toom sports is not that of the modern woman defined by popular culture, but that of a Thai nymph, as defined by traditional performance. There is also much emphasis paid to the ritualistic pre-fight dance, Wai Kru, which though traditionally an integral part of Thai boxing, becomes highly theatrical in the film and thus connected to Likay dance.
Ong Bak too strives to beautify Muay Thai, but not to subvert Thai conservatism, but rather to reinforce it, achieving a simplistic, though often viscerally thrilling paean to tradition. While the film’s charismatic star Tony Jaa has been compared to an early Jackie Chan, I’d prefer to compare him to the stock star of 1970s Shaw Brothers or the Bruce Lee of Golden Harvest -- not only because of his impressive fighting ability, but also the way his quiet, modest demeanor embodies an innocent, simple reversion to tradition. Jaa’s character says little, and lives by the cliché that though he has the uncanny ability to kick the shit out of any given opponent, he must never use violence in public. Of course, after promising to represent his village to recover a stolen statue called Ong Bak, he’s forced in the most unbelievable of circumstances to beat to bloody extremes a series of arrogant foreigners who think that Western-styled boxing can beat Muay Thai. Jaa of course proves them all wrong in several sequences that combine the episodic structure of a game of Street Fighter II and the cultural resistance of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series.
Director Ekachai Uekrongtham does this primarily by fetishizing Jaa’s well-sculpted body through long takes, long shots, and especially slow-motion, all of which are particularly suitable for showing the beauty of Muay Thai. As in the best of Jackie Chan’s films (as well as the films of Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire), Ong Bak excels when it simply gives the viewer the opportunity to see Jaa’s body in motion with as few interrupting cuts as possible. The jerkiness of his movements (which come off as particularly “Thai” compared to the Western clumsiness of Jaa’s opponents), absent from Beautiful Boxer -- which was more interested in the sport’s dance-like qualities -- is here emphasized and glorified as magical and unpredictable. Since Jaa’s opponents are mostly Western, his fighting style, rendered in countless slow-motion shots, is defined against other forms of martial arts. Because, at least for the non-Thai spectator, Muay Thai is received as “exotic,” its beauty is defined against what we’re used to, namely Western boxing and Chinese martial arts.
The issue of exploiting Muay Thai’s exportable qualities is seen in both films, although explicitly in Beautiful Boxer and implicitly in Ong Bak. In Beautiful Boxer, upon becoming a celebrity in the Muay Thai circuit, Nong Toom becomes an exploitable spectacle and even travels to Japan to fight a female professional wrestler. Here, such exploitation is seen as shameful, for it puts Muay Thai under foreign gaze, which embarrasses many Thai people especially because its chief representative is wearing feminine makeup and a pink tank-top. Ong Bak however, in its successful bid at global acceptance, has been disseminated primarily by exploiting its “exotic” yet comfortably familiar elements. That is, it appeals to foreign audiences tastes in Hong Kong action, and then one-ups Jet Li and Jackie Chan with R-rated scenes of brutality. Packaged in glossy, “beautiful” slow-motion set-pieces, Ong Bak delivers graphic violence, yet the consequences of that violence are hidden behind the film’s conservatism (that traditional, rural, simple Thai culture can triumph over corrupted, Westernized Bangkok society) and superficial “artiness,” which New York Times critic Manohla Dargis recently called “the mainstreaming of exploitation” in a discussion of Korean director Park Chan-wook. Ong Bak seems uninterested in interrogating the concept of Muay Thai amidst social change as Beautiful Boxer does, which makes it less interesting to me than Bruce Lee’s films and Tsui Hark’s wuxia pictures, and more interested in simply reinforcing essentialized, decontextualized notions of Thai traditional culture.
Date Posted: 3/10/2005