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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 10:57 GMT
Transvestites rescue Thai movies
Scene from Beautiful Boxer
Beutiful Boxer is a true story
A number of films featuring transvestites and transsexuals as the central characters have been pulling crowds in to Thai cinemas - and are now looking to do so around the world.

Two such films have just been premiered in Berlin, Beautiful Boxer and The Adventures Of Iron Pussy.

Beautiful Boxer is the true story of Nong Toom, a Thai kickboxer seeking a sex-change operation. The film has the tagline "He fights like a man - so he can become a woman," and has been selected for the Panorama Section of the Berlin Film Festival.

"As a Thai, I had always heard of Nong Toom, because she's such a colourful character," Beautiful Boxer's director Ekachai Uekrongtham told BBC World Service's The Ticket programme.

"But I think that I recognise that perhaps in this character, I might be able to find an emotional anchor to tell a story that's... about a human being who tries to be courageous enough to be who he wants to be.

Iron Ladies

"I think it's an interesting character to me, because it's about someone who masters the most masculine - Thai kick boxing - in order to achieve total femininity," he said.

Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg was one of the influences for Iron Pussy
He added this gave the film a lot of built-in conflict - "the basis for very good drama."

The film that sparked off the Thai box office revival was smash hit comedy Iron Ladies.

That was also a sporting true story - this time of a transvestite volleyball team. The film won international recognition and became one of the biggest-grossing Thai films of all time.

Beautiful Boxer and The Adventures Of Iron Pussy are just two of a spate of films have followed. The Bangkok Post estimates that of the around fifty Thai films released this year, five or six feature prominent transvestite characters.

The Adventures Of Iron Pussy, for example, features a man who is a shop assistant by day, and a kick-boxing, high-heel-wearing superhero by night.

The film is a spy parody, written and co-directed by its main star, Michael Shaowanasai.

Shaowanasai said the character of Iron Pussy was drawn from three different sources.

"The first one is my mother - I look exactly like my mother, who used to be a movie star, but she didn't make it because she had a career and children," he explained.

"I thought it would be great, to provide closure, really, for that dream of hers."

The other sources were Japanese TV series Playgirls and film star Diana Rigg, a Bond girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service but best-known for the role of Miss Peel in The Avengers.

Shaowanasai said Rigg was his "long-time heroine."

"I love her. I saw her in The Avengers as a child, and I thought that this woman looks like an Asian woman - but she's not.

"She's just so cool, she fights bad guys."

Buddhist sympathy

But Shaowanasai added that although the film is primarily a parody, it did have a serious point to make.

Transsexual beauty contest
Thai society is sympathetic to transsexuals
"One thing about gay and lesbian films that come out of Thailand is that they portray gay characters as clowns and buffoons," he stressed.

"I want to change that idea for the audience, so they say, 'hey, gay people can do something else as well - not just running around with makeup and doing funny stuff'."

Beautiful boxer's director Ekachai he said he believed the reason transvestite films were so well-received in Thailand was partly due to the country's predominantly Buddhist religion.

Buddhist beliefs hold that transvestites were born that way as a result of bad karma.

Consequently there was much compassion towards them in the country.

"We feel that it's not something they want to be born with," he highlighted.

"So we do have more compassion and more tolerance."

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