A Mon refugee village in Thailand holds bare-knuckle boxing matches that enables youngsters to win cash prizes. This is our review of director Tate Zandstra’s documentary Mon Boxing.
It was only last year when director Tate Zandstra sent us his intriguing documentary Lumpini which was all about Thailand’s national sport, Muay Thai, focusing on the combatants who spend their lives training to become the best. It was well received and with very good reason, Zandstra knows his stuff. Having been involved in martial arts since he was very young, even fighting in the ring, he was a former sports journalist for Tapout and MMA worldwide magazines. There Zandstra began to cover MMA and Muay Thai, writing dozens of magazine articles in the process. So far he has made three documentary films about the sport of Muay Thai – the unreleased Torn Cloth, the aforementioned Lumpini, and now we have Mon Boxing a slightly different take on his very specialist subject.
Given gravitas by narrator Stephen Haynes, Mon Boxing opens with some beautiful long shots of the Tenasserim Hills, jungles, and rivers before cutting in close to the inhabitants of the town of Sangkhlaburi continuing with their daily business. Across a small wooden bridge is Mon Village, a former settlement camp for refugees who fled the war between tribal armed groups and the Burmese military in the 1980s. Still considered refugees, their movement and labour options remain restricted. Using the usual talking heads style Zandstra interviews human rights workers and looks into the human rights violations that regularly occur on the Thailand-Burma border.
One of the more violent activities that take place and the main subject of Zandstra’s film is a form of bare-knuckle boxing that has taken place in Burma for centuries. Run by the Burmese police, local youths size each other up and fight for money. There are no weight or age limits for the bouts, boxers simply approach the judges who will then sanction the fights.
It’s an eye-opening documentary that sheds light on the refugee crisis in countries all over the world. The longer you watch the more you realise that all the issues are exactly the same. Innocent people are forced to flee their homes, only to end up in places they can’t escape from, faced with poverty, abuse, and a class system to keep them down. The only thing open to them is to risk life and limb fighting each other to better themselves.
Using Mon Boxing as a metaphor for the battle between two countries searching for their own historic identity, Zandstra frames each match as an epic battle, using close-ups to make you feel part of the action. None of the young fighters are professional and Zandstra manages to capture the brutal simplicity of each round. There is very little technique on display from the boxers, just flurries of fists and legs frantically trying to hit their marks. You feel yourself flinching as you watch the youngsters beating each other to a pulp, then sick as you see the desperation seeping from every pore, before feeling guilty as Zandstra cuts between what’s going on in the ring and the aftermath of those who have fought previously and been less successful.
Using news footage, photographs, and eyewitness accounts, Zandstra manages to encompass 100 years of history into just 38 minutes of film. Mon Boxing is a powerful and brutal documentary that uses bare-knuckle fighting as a framework on which to build a better understanding of those less fortunate than ourselves.