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Wednesday, May 2, 2001
Don't go messing with the Iron Ladies
By KAORI SHOJI
A lot of men say that femininity is a dying art. Women are no longer interested in polishing that side of themselves and, consequently, men are feeling distressed. If it's any consolation, I would like to point out that some people out there are keeping the flame burning and burning brightly. I'm talking about the transsexuals who seem privy to all the secrets of womanhood that, had I known even a smidgen of 10 years ago, could have transported me from movie-review hackdom to a Much More Glamorous Place. Still, it may not be too late for re-education so I made tracks to Shibuya to see a movie called "Satree-Lex" ("Iron Ladies" in English, released in Japan as "Attack Number Half").
"Satree-Lex" is big and warmhearted and assures us it is "for all genders," which must include tired hacks in dirty sweat shirts on a Monday morning -- how wonderful. Directed by Thailand's Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, "Satree-Lex" is based on a true story about a gay volleyball team -- with a lesbian coach -- that swept the Thai national tournaments in 1996. Understandably, the team caused a sensation. That year on the streets of Bangkok, teenage girls went around dressed like the Iron Ladies and volleyball became the "in" sport (played with manicured nails, of course).
The brilliance of "Satree-Lex" is in the cast. Thongkongtoon made TV commercials before this feature, his debut, and most of the cast members are people he worked with in the industry. He avoided real gay actors, reasoning that having straights pose as gays would be more interesting. The actors were trained to look, talk and act like the Thai katooi (transgenders) who refuse to start the day without a fully made-up visage. The one genuine article is the astonishing transvestite Gogkorn Benjathikul who "implanted silicone in every part of her body" and should easily fall under the definition of the word "feminine."
The story: Mon (Sahaparp Virakamin) is a skilled volleyball player, but the coach has a problem about his long hair, coquettish gestures and full makeup. So Mon leaves to seek solace in the company of Jung (Chaichan Nimpoolsward), a college classmate and of the same sexual persuasion. Jung wears wonderful girly threads but sports an even better attitude: He insists on making their own team to compete in the national games. The good news is, their head coach Bee (Siritana Hongsophorn) is a completely liberated and enlightened lesbian who offers full moral support. So Jung and Mon recruit all their volleyball buddies from college, including the lovely Pia (Benjathikul), plus one straight guy called Chai (Jesdaporn Pholdee) and christen their team the "Iron Ladies."
Gay culture in Thailand is different than it is in, say, the U.S. or Japan in that the katooi openly parade their sexuality -- young schoolboys in uniforms will lounge around malls in full makeup and it's not unusual to be served coffee in a restaurant by a burly middle-aged man wearing lipstick. The outsider may think Thailand is a liberated paradise, but this movie says not. The Iron Ladies run up against their share of discrimination and misunderstanding, and coach Bee is a constant target for male chauvinists.
Still, the storm of controversy is nothing compared to what would or could happen to a team of male athletes elsewhere in the world who wiggle their bottoms and blow kisses on the court. Judging from this movie, if this isn't paradise, it comes damn close.
This is obviously the way the director wanted it: "Satree-Lex" concentrates on the naughty, fun side of gender-blenderism while occasionally flying low enough for a look at the darker side of the landscape. Mon, for example, preferred to be what he is because of his home environment and a super-macho father who was always beating up on his mother. Instead of highlighting or even elaborating on Mon's problem, the movie focuses instead on Mon's pouts, hairdo and emotional/verbal joustings with Chai, captain and sole hetero on the team.
Chai obviously is drawn to Mon but scared to death of what could happen if they became friends. Before things can really sizzle however, "Satree-Lex" takes the ball to another court. It would also have been interesting to see some of coach Bee's inner landscape, she being the only biological female character in the movie and the only one who never wears makeup or talks about a love life. Thongkongtoon has stressed that he was making a human-interest story and not a sports movie, but as it stands, "Satree-Lex" lacks the depth to really make it count.
He has a point though, about this not being a sports flick. The ladies of Satree-Lex" are so totally inept at volleyball (unlike the models they were based on) the games are sometimes too painful to watch. But hey, who cares. It's worth it for the makeup tips alone.