Dir: Yongyooth Thongkonthun. Thailand. 2000
Cool Runnings meets The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert in this raucous, cheer-the-underdog charmer inspired by true events at the 1996 Thailand national volleyball championships. A shameless crowd-pleaser, played for broad comic effect, it embraces every cliche of the sporting no-hopers genre but still wears down any cynical resistance by the time of the big, all or nothing finale. A cheering presence on the festival circuit during the past year, its lack of sophistication may limit its commercial appeal in many territories but the feelgood factor alone signifies a healthy potential as a cult or specialised item, especially among gay and gay-friendly audiences.
Wearing its heart firmly on its sleeve, this first feature from commercials director Yongyooth Thongkonthun uses its spirited comic formula to take some telling shots at prejudice and intolerance as a team of transvestites, gays and transsexuals dare to compete against the macho arrogance of their heterosexual rivals.
When a tough woman coach is appointed to the Lampang Men's Volleyball Team, the players respond with knee-jerk sexist opposition. Discontent turns to revolt when her open tryouts lead to the selection of transvestite Mon and screaming drag queen buddy Jun. Proud captain Chai is the only team member who doesn't resign in disgust. Desperate for replacements, the team round-up hunky, make-up loving army sergeant Nong, transsexual stage star Pia, closeted Chinese-Thai boy Wit and giggling, transvestite triplets called April, May and June.
The tale progresses along entirely predictable lines as the disparate individuals discover their team spirit, challenge narrow-minded bigots and confront their personal demons. Wit finally stands up to his parents, for instance, while Chai grows to accept and respect his outrageous gay teammates. Inevitably, there are those in authority seeking to have the team disqualified and rivals willing to employ the most dastardly tactics to gain the upper hand. A make-up ban, broken nails and parental fury are among the obstacles the players must overcome before making it to a national final in which gay and straight, drag queen and adolescent fan come out to lend their support and cheer them on to victory.
It may pause for the odd moment of sermonising or self-pity but The Iron Ladies places the emphasis firmly on simple-minded comic exuberance rather than anything too deep or searching. Initially pitched at a fairly cartoon-like level, the performances are allowed to develop a little over the course of the film, revealing more subtle shadings to the character of grinning, foul-mouthed flibberty gibbet Jun and showing Mon to be a capable volleyball player and sensitive all-rounder.
The lack of any surprises along the way doesn't detract from the film's overall high spirits and ability to win the audience over to its side: the screening attended by this critic was followed by appreciative applause. The end titles play out over television news and chatshow footage of the real iron ladies that underlines just what an accurate job the director and cast appear to have done in capturing their personalities and folk hero status.
Prod co : Tai Entertainment
Int'l Sales: Fortissimo
Prod: Visute Poolvoralaks
Scr: Visuthichai Bunyakarnjana, Jira Malikul, Yongyooth Thongkonthun
Cinematography: Jira Malikul
Ed: Sunit Avinikul
Prod des: Narucha Vijitvarit
Sound: Amornpong Methakunawut
Main cast: Jesdaporn Pholdee, Sahaparp Virakamintr, Ekachai Buranapanich, Jojo Mioxshi.