Things are a bit samey in Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s otherwise sweet sports comedy.
“You see what faggots like us can do!”
The term kathoey is one used exclusively in Thailand, and refers to a specific sort of person, although this depends on who you ask. Its most common English translation or equivalent is the oft-derided phrase “ladyboy”, but the term itself is used by Thais to refer to a number of men who, effectively, don’t follow cisnormative patterns. Compared to much of the western world, kathoey men in Thailand are more widely accepted, but still face a fair amount of discrimination in their day-to-day lives.
Based on a true story, The Iron Ladies follows a group of individuals who come together to form the first gay and transsexual men’s volleyball team. Mon (Sahaphap Tor) and Jung (Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi) are two best friends who have been often overlooked because of their lifestyle. They see their opportunity to join a team when a new coach (Shiriohana Hongsopon) is put in charge of the team. After many other players drop out, they invite a number of their friends to play, and the team slowly begins to gain a following and rise through competitions.
Just to get it out of the way first, I’ll say that The Iron Ladies’ biggest stumble is that it does very little to try to break the mould of sports comedies. The comparisons to films like Cool Runnings and Waterboys is too easy – they all fit the exact same structure and this makes the film extraordinarily predictable. And with this, not a single beat is missed: from the victory montage, to the third-act fight, to the villainous rival who returns for the final match. It’s all there, and it’s all paint-by-numbers. It’s kind of a shame because while it does try to get into the personal lives of the players, it can never quit escape those obvious associations.
But that doesn’t make it terrible. The films I mentioned above both follow the exact same formula, but are both well-regarded. Waterboys and Cool Runnings had very charming, likeable characters and Iron Ladies is no different. Jung and Mon have a fantastic chemistry together, and have such endearing personalities that you don’t really care that you know where the story’s going. You’re just happy they’re raking in all the wins while they can. A film like this can coast by on the sheer chemistry of its stars alone without worrying too much about the plot, but it requires strong leads. On the flip side, there isn’t much development on the rest of the cast – the connections just aren’t as strong – but they still all work really well as an ensemble.
In regards to Jung, playing the flamboyant effeminate homosexual is a … tricky endeavour, to say the least. You want to balance the more out-there aspects of the personality with the person on the inside. Michel Serrault did a fantastic job in La Cage Aux Folles and Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi’s Jung is equally likeable, just over-the-top enough to be funny and memorable, but without turning himself into a cartoon. As with other characters of his ilk, partnering him up with a more sensible, level-headed guy makes the portrayal feel unique, and not like the filmmakers had a single, stereotypical view of homosexuality.
And frankly, it would be weird if this film – ostensibly about the gay community in Thailand – was too stereotypical in its writing. It manages to take what could have been outdated, tired clichés and makes them powerful character points. At one point Chai (Jesdaporn Pholdee), the only cis male in the team, chides the Ladies for prioritising makeup and performance over actual gameplay – but it’s such a strong part of the team’s identity that it would be meaningless to win without it. The Iron Ladies addresses the idea of embracing yourself but not doing so at the cost of something else making neither side of this argument “right”, per se.
The Iron Ladies would have been a pretty forgettable film were it not for its underlying messages and charming characters. It’s a film that spoke heavily to the Thai people back in 2001 – so much so that it spawned two other films in the franchise – and one that will be rather pertinent to a Western audience today. Some of its language might be a bit outdated, or maybe it’s a result of a blunter Thai translation, who knows, but the themes are still just as strong. As of the time of writing, The Iron Ladies is available on Netflix and definitely worth a watch.
Verdict: it might lean too heavily on clichés and sport comedy tropes, but The Iron Ladies nevertheless is a sweet, uplifting time.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Montages: 2, minimum
Female actors playing trans women: 1
Rules of volleyball: I still have no idea
The Iron Ladies (2001)
สตรีเหล็ก (Satree lek)
Director: Yongyoot Thongkongtoon
Writers: Visuttchai Boonyakarnjawa, Jira Maligool, Youngyooth Thongkonthun
Jesdaporn Pholdee – Chai
Sahaphap Tor – Mon
Chaicharn Nimpulsawasdi – Jung
Giorgio Maiocchi – Nong
Ekachai Buranapanit – Wit
Kokkorn Benjathikoon – Pia
Shiriohana Hongsopon – Coach Bee
Phomsit Sitthijamroenkhun – April
Sutthipong Sitthijamroenkhun – May
Anucha Chatkaew – June
Kittipat Samarntragulchai – Dao