Holy flaming mother of buggery, it's based on a true story!
Oh, and it's also brilliant.
I'd been going to praise this to the skies and call it a new favourite even when I thought it was some random cheap piece of nonsense that surely no one else had heard of. However in fact it was a massive hit both domestically (Thailand) and on the international film festival circuit, although the Institute of Contemporary Arts came a cropper when it tried to make it the centrepiece of its summer 2001 schedule. This is not an art-house movie. For that audience, it flopped. It's the best movie I've seen this week (against some impressive competition), but it's also a fairly crude piece of work that's going to strike a sophisticated audience as populist and silly. There's nothing special at all about the acting, directing, cinematography and so on. The characters are screaming drag queens. The production values are cheap and occasionally shoddy.
Nevertheless it's been nominated for twelve awards and won ten of them, including the Thailand National Film Association Awards, Toronto International Film Festival and an audience award at the Berlin International Film Festival. What's great about it is the story, the emotion and the laughs.
The story is simple. Mon and Jung are flaming queens and transvestites, with Jung blazing so brightly that he's probably visible from space. However they also like volleyball. Mon in particular takes his game seriously and is a quality player, but the local coach won't pick him. One day though, the team changes hands and Coach Bee starts picking the best players irrespective of sexuality, which unsurprisingly triggers a walkout from the team's neanderthals. Mon and Jung have a few ideas for where to find possible replacements, so fairly soon Thailand finds itself with its first gay and kathoey men's volleyball team... who then triumph over the bigots and go on to the national championships. This really happened. I don't know how much dramatic licence has been taken with the details, but all the real Iron Ladies (as the team called itself) are apparently in the film's end credits and in 1996 they did indeed get as far as their fictional counterparts do here.
Kathoey is usually translated as "ladyboy", incidentally. One of these gay men has had surgery and is played by an actress. S/he has breasts. Don't know about the other bits.
So it's a sports movie. This is not a sophisticated genre and the film isn't changing that. Your classical sports movie is about underdogs succeeding against all the odds, which sure enough is once again the formula. There's nothing unexpected in the plot, which furthermore isn't afraid of going a bit Children's Film Foundation in the scene where they embarrass the bigoted governor. What it has instead is a ton of heart and entertainment value. The Iron Ladies are funny. Whatever they're doing, they're a hoot. There are three little guys called April, May and June who do everything in synchrony, for instance, who'd crack me up just by walking across the room. They're so loud, silly and wholehearted that you'd need a heart of stone not to adore them. (Well, either that or to be allergic to effeminate gay stereotypes, either through homophobia or indignant political correctness.)
However on top of that, you've also got the underdog factor. There's nothing like seeing the triumph of the oppressed and this film has managed to tap into something powerful. Thailand looks to be an impressively tolerant country, but even so there's always another bigot crawling out of the woodwork and our heroes have accumulated a lot of pain under those camp exteriors. "They'll never accept us. We'll never belong." They'll call themselves freaks or leftovers. I'd been laughing myself silly pretty much throughout this film, but I had a tear in my eye near the end when pretty much the entire volleyball stadium, spectators and commentators alike, was cheering on the Iron Ladies. If that's not acceptance, I don't know what is.
For the most part, the film looks fine. It won't have been expensive, but it doesn't look obviously done on the cheap... except for the bar fight. That looks rubbish. Admittedly it's entertaining, but everyone's throwing stage punches and there are only a few people on screen at any one time.
What do gay audiences think of this film? Well, it played the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, so it can't have gone down too badly. It would be possible to take offence at the apparent stereotypes, but I'd suggest that anyone doing so would be advised to reconsider after removing their head from their arse. However that said, I did notice that the only romantic subplot involved the ladyboy and her on-off boyfriend, who of course are being played by an actor and an actress. There's no full-on gay love story. Were they trying not to make straight audiences needn't feel threatened? However to be fair this is a sports movie rather than a love film, while it's noticeable that what romantic subplots we do have tend to end in couples breaking up rather than finding each other. Furthermore there's a gay man who comes out of the closet to his family (and more), although don't get too busy looking for gay men in denial. That road will lead to red herrings.
Apparently this film kicked off a wave of gender-bending movies in Thailand, such as Beautiful Boxer and The Adventures Of Iron Pussy. I've also seen the claim that Buddhism's teaching on transvestites are what have helped make Thailand both particularly receptive to such films and tolerant in real life. In summary: wow. I loved this film so much that I didn't want to watch the 2003 prequel/sequel, since it seemed impossible to me that lightning could be caught twice in the same bottle. However a little research has made it sound better than expected and I think I'll be checking it out after all. I loved this film. Simply loved it.
Footnote: I was wrong. Kokkorn Benjathikoon isn't a woman. That's a real ladyboy playing the ladyboy.