of the spirit
by Sherman Chau
Katoey is the light-hearted term that refers to the
transvestites and transsexuals who can be found everywhere in Thailand.
Don't let this seemingly lenient attitude fool you, though. Even in a
country associated, as pundits say, with loose sexual morals, tolerance
does not necessarily mean acceptance, nor an absence of negative social
As one of the five katoey characters the box-office
smash Satree Lex (The Iron Ladies) laments: "We're the forgotten orphans
of society." And that is precisely the point that the film is trying to
The Iron Ladies features the bizarre but true story
of a katoey-led volleyball team that won a real-life national men's title
in 1996. Made with a modest budget of about 10 million baht, the film
marks a major step forward for the Thai cinema not only in terms of the
subject matter, but also in the sense that it combines sports and comedy
movies--two genres not exactly appealing to Thai audiences--in a way that
gently touches the viewers' heart strings.
It is also the first movie to be made about
Thailand's transvestites since The Last Song (Pleng Sudtai) in the
early 1980s, which tells the story of a katoey cabaret singer who
"We haven't had a Thai comedy in recent years,
(movies were) mostly action, drama and horror," says director Yongyoot
Thongkongtoon, who seems at a loss to explain the unexpected success of
his film. "Maybe it's different from other Thai films out there. Maybe
it just came out at the right time. In Thailand, we usually see gays in
exaggerated and sometimes ridiculous forms, like in TV katoey dramas. I
tried to make the film more
natural, not too stereotyped, like the way my gay friends act in real life,"
says Thongkongtoon, who directed television commercials before making this
Casting was the biggest challenge and took three
months before the right actors were found. Four gay characters are
actually played by male actors, but for Gokgorn Benjathikul, who plays the
gender-transformed Pia, being gay is not an act. The same goes for the
triplet characters--April, May and June (Pormasith Siticharoengkul,
Suttipong Siticharoengkul, Anucha Chatkaew)--who are actually casting and
talent scouts for Thongkongtoon.
Drawing repeat business and introducing hilarious
new gay slang to the mainstream could be the other reasons why The Iron
Ladies is now the second-highest grossing film in Thai history, after
the ghost story Nang Nak. It made the equivalent of HK$42 million,
half of which came from Bangkok cinemas alone.
The uniquely Thai gay vocabulary has emerged as an
unexpected star of the film. So many people were writing down the
previously unknown terms that the filmmakers decided to print pages of Thai
Gayspeak as a souvenir for viewers. Unless you speak Thai, though
you'll have to settle for the watered-down Cantonese and English versions.
First, Thongkongtoon says, the slang is too difficult to translate
accurately from Thai. Second, even if they could, they would be too
outrageous for publication.
Just because The Iron Ladies is a humorous
take on a funny, true story doesn't mean it overlooks weighty social
issues in favour of cheap laughs. As if the sexual preference of the
leading characters in The Iron Ladies was not already controversial
enough, the team's female coach, Bee, is lesbian, which raises the
eyebrows of some sports bureaucrats. After her capable but very homophobic
captain ditches the team, she is forced to resort to a motley crew of
volleyball-crazy katoeys. Mon and Jung first join the team, and
immediately recruit their old pals who are good at the sport. Nong, the
soft-hearted hunk, is picked from a provincial boot camp, while Pia, the
only transsexual among the group (and the only real katoey actor in the
film), has to quit one of Pattaya's most popular dance clubs to get on
board. Wit, the only son of a Chinese family who tries to at least act
like a straight man, is plucked right from his engagement ceremony,
leaving his bride-to-be utterly flustered.
The ensuing sequences of their training and the
team's progress in the national championship are created with such warmth,
humour, and humanism that many of the film's technical shortcomings can be
forgiven with ease. Even with the universal message, though, Thongkongtoon
still saw the undertaking as a huge risk. He is known to have confessed, "I
broke every taboo in the business, making this film", but his gamble
seems to have paid off. "I think the key to the success of the film is
that people can relate the characters to their friends or to people in
their neighbourhood," he says. "In the end, everyone leaves the
theatre with smiles and good feelings. They look at life from the brighter
side. Things may look bright in celluloid, but real life is actually
slightly dimmer, a sign that full acceptance of gays has yet to arrive."
In The Iron Ladies, Jung's parents are very
supportive of his sexual orientation. "I love the foundation you're
wearing - what number is it?" prods his father jokingly. "They know
about my gay lifestyle, but they aren't as supportive as in the movie,"
says the real-life Jung, also known as Kongrit Singnukot.
In the film, Wit is a closet homosexual whose
gayness is discovered by his family when he is seen playing with the Iron
Ladies on national television. "My life didn't happen the way it did in
the movie. In fact, my parents never even watched me play volleyball,"
says Nipat Leelaapiradee, who is yet unsure whether he is gay or bisexual
and does not wish to discuss the matter, or be photographed.
Although Ladies has a sympathetic slant, some
characters only help reinforce the stereotypical images of katoeys, who
are often shown in various media as screeching, overdressed,
one-dimensional, comic characters playing for cheap laughs. It is
interesting to note that the local distributor of the film took the
trouble of dubbing its dialogue into Cantonese, rendering its thematic
poignancy and carefree humour more appealing and accessible to the Hong
Kong audience. And not just plain, old dubbing; they invited such
popular artists as Ekin Cheng, Eric Kot, Sandra Ng Kwan-yu, and Stephen
Fung to lend their familiar voices to The Iron Ladies.
It is ironic in the film that as soon as the team
drops its distinctly feminine attitude and bans the players from putting
on make-up, they start losing. When Chai gives in and allows his mates to
go back to "acting like tootsies", however, they start winning
Perhaps therein lies one of life's secrets: we are what we are after all,
and can be our best when we're allowed to act according to our true
Source: From a
Google Cache of Hong Kong iMail, dated August 31, 2000