Thailand's film industry is on a roll, both at home and overseas, with two pillars of Thai culture and sub-culture - kickboxing and ladyboys - leading the charge. It's expected that more than 50 local films will be released in Thailand this year, up from 23 last year and 15 in 2001. The biggest hit so far in 2003 has been kickboxing drama Ong Bak, starring real-life martial artist Panom Yeerum, which raked in 118 million baht (HK$22 million), followed by the sequel to comedy Iron Ladies, about a transsexual volleyball team, with 80 million baht. Iron Ladies 2 - which is now also playing in Hong Kong - achieved what most sequels fail to do and made more money than the original. Not surprisingly given its success, Iron Ladies has inspired a whole new sub-genre of ladyboy flicks in Thailand - with mirth-inspiring titles such as Prang Chompoo (Saving Private Tootsie) and Cheerleader Queens - while Ong Bak proved that Thai moviegoers also like their heroes on the butch side. Now, Thai film studio GMM Pictures, owned by entertainment giant GMM Grammy, has gone one step further and combined the two trends. Upcoming action drama Beautiful Boxer tells the real-life story of Parinya Charoenphol, affectionately nicknamed Nong Toom in Thailand, a kickboxer who fought to earn money for a sex change operation. Directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham, founding director of Singapore's Action Theatre, the film traces Nong Toom's nomadic childhood, gruelling apprenticeship in Thai boxing camps and a series of matches where he knocked out most of his opponents. Production on the film started in February and wrapped last month after taking in nine Thai provinces. Some pivotal scenes were also filmed in Japan. 'When I first read about Nong Toom in the newspapers I was naturally intrigued, just like everyone else,' says Uekrongtham. 'Nong Toom is a walking paradox. A boy who fights like a man so he can become a woman. The emotional and physical conflicts within such a young person are quite extraordinary.' Uekrongtham held open auditions at several locations around Thailand to find the right person to play Nong Toom - someone who could both fight and wear lipstick with conviction, but would also take the role seriously. 'The film has comic moments, but it isn't a slapstick comedy - we're not laughing at Nong Toom,' says Uekrongtham. 'Drama and action are driving the film, we hope it's going to be touching.' More than 300 people from 40 provinces around Thailand were shortlisted and auditioned for the film including professional fighters, amateur boxers, transvestites and transsexuals. Eventually the role went to Asanee Suwan, a 22-year-old professional kickboxer from Chiangmai - the same province that Nong Toom grew up in - who isn't a transvestite. Nong Toom, who finally had the operation in 1999, makes a guest appearance in the film, while Australian-born Singaporean star Keagan Kang plays a foreign journalist who reluctantly covers her story. Although the film isn't played just for laughs, it contains a fair portion of situational comedy. 'That's inevitable as Nong Toom was a woman forced to live in a man's world,' says Uekrongtham. During her boxing days, Nong Toom would regularly wear lipstick and mascara in the ring and kiss opponents on the cheek. 'I have the body of a fighter. But in my heart, I am a woman,' she was reported as saying. 'Sometimes I find it hard to punch my opponents if they are very handsome.' The film will be released in Bangkok on either December 5 - the birthday of Thailand's king and an important holiday in the nation - or the weekend before. GMM expects to announce a major international partner in the next few weeks which will distribute the film overseas. Meanwhile, the most recent film from Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Last Life In The Universe, has been selected to screen in competition at the Venice Film Festival (August 27-September 6). Starring Japan's Asano Tadanobu and shot by Hong Kong's Chris Doyle, the film tells the story of a Japanese librarian living in Bangkok who accidentally kills a yakuza gang member. The Floating Landscape, directed by Hong Kong's Carol Lai Miu-suet, is also heading for Venice. Produced by Hong Kong's Filmko with French, mainland and Japanese partners, the film stars Karena Lam as a bereaved woman who visits the home town of her deceased boyfriend. Ekin Cheng and mainland actor Liu Ye also star. Other Asian films in the Venice line-up include A Good Lawyer's Wife, directed by South Korea's Im Sang-soo; Goodbye Dragon Inn from Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang and two Japanese films - Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi and Antenna from Kumakiri Kazuyoshi.