Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blissfully Thai: The Iron Ladies

Aside from two weeks during Olympic years, Volleyball is not much of a priority for American sports watchers. However, it is serious business in many countries, even in odd years. In Thailand, a championship team consisting entirely of gay and transsexual players was a big deal in the late 1990’s. That was indeed the dream for a scrappy team of marginalized underdogs. Their true story inspired Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s The Iron Ladies (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of the Asia Society’s Blissfully Thai retrospective of Thai cinema since 2000.

Mon is not nearly as flamboyant as his friend Jung. Yet, despite his talent, the regional volleyball clubs consistently discriminate against him. However, when Coach Bee moves up from the high school ranks to the semi-pros, she sets a policy of fair and open try-outs, which she really means. She has an affinity for the underdog herself. After all, her short hair and unglamorous attire make everyone assume she is gay as well—a fact the film neither confirms nor denies.

As per viewer expectations, when she accepts Mon and Jung, nearly the entire team quits in protest. Fortunately, they are able to recruit a credible team from their circle of friends, who will have quite a run at the league championship tournament.

Naturally, the team is quite colorful in a drama queen sort of way. There is the elegant female impersonator diva, the strong but sensitive army sergeant, and the closeted son of traditional parents. Of course, he is set to marry a ridiculously cute fiancé, whom he has no interest in whatsoever. If these sound like stereotypes, that is because they are.

The real life so-called Iron Ladies were indeed a Thai cultural phenomenon twenty-some years ago. At the time the second highest grossing Thai film ever, Iron even spawned a sequel, cleverly titled Iron Ladies 2. However, its comedy through “swishiness” formula is likely to make many hip New Yorkers uncomfortable. Yet, its message of tolerance and inclusion comes through loud and clear (essentially hitting viewers over the head). Still, Iron perhaps inspired some Thai audiences to look beyond stock stereotypes by first embracing them, or something like that.

In the spirit of teamwork, Iron’s ensemble cast collectively gives it their all. Yet, the most intriguing performances are those that stay grounded rather than charging over the top. Particularly effective is Sirithana Hongsophon as Coach Bee, who initially comes across as strictly business, but slowly allows her mothering instincts to emerge. Amongst the players, Sashaparp Virakamin is clearly the most credible, showing some degree of nuance, rather than just adapting bits from La Cage Aux Folles.

Breezy and well intentioned, Iron is a harmless piece of movie candy. If not a classic by hardcore cineaste standards, it is certainly a significant recent touchstone film, making it an appropriate selection for the Blissfully Thai series. It screens this evening (5/26) at the Asia Society.