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Good-Natured Comedy Wins Out in the Campy ‘Iron Ladies’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most improbable aspect of the Thai movie “The Iron Ladies” is that it is based on a true story: The country actually has a volleyball team composed mostly of gays, transvestites and transsexuals, and it competes in national competitions.

This extremely broad comedy makes “The Full Monty” seem understated in comparison, but it has been a sure-fire crowd pleaser on home ground and has won audience awards at New York’s and San Francisco’s lesbian and gay film festivals.

It is high-energy entertainment that is also silly and sentimental and so over-the-top as to become wearying at times. But that it is also funny and good-natured ends up counting more.

The way director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon and his co-writers tell it is that in 1996, when a woman, Coach Bee (Siridhana Hongsophon), is selected to put together a winning male team, she announces that tryouts will be open to all.

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This is great news for Mon (Sahaparp Virakamin), a tall, somewhat effeminate young man with long hair, and his friend Jung (Chaichan Nimpoonsawas), a flamboyant, foulmouthed and fearless transvestite, who have heretofore been discriminated against in tryouts.

Their macho teammates find their presence so threatening that, except for the captain, Chai (Jessdaporn Pholdee), they quit the team.

What’s Coach Bee to do but ask Jung and Mon to recruit replacements among their friends?

They recruit Nong (Giorgio Maioccichi), an army sergeant as rugged as he is campy; Pia (Gokgorn Benjathkui), the glamorous transsexual star of a gay nightclub revue; Pia’s boyfriend, Chat (Pakorn Vitpatawat); and Wit (Ekachai Buranapanit), who has not come out to his affluent, conservative family and is in fact engaged to be married.

When the team hits the court, the crowd reacts in an uproar, but soon applauds its guts and skill in deflecting taunts and scoring points. The team captures the imagination of the public rather as the Village People did two decades ago.

Only the head of the national championship competition remains unamused, and Coach Bee, who may be a lesbian, attacks the guy full force for both homophobia and male chauvinism.To be sure, there are individual locker-room dramas: Pia fears losing Cha to a “real woman.” Wit fears his family will find out he’s gay, etc.

No crystal ball is needed to predict how everything turns out, on the court and off.

Hongsophon’s unflappable, bemused and astringent Coach Bee is the film’s anchor amid a heavy dose of campy shenanigans.

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The cast throws itself into the spirit of the occasion, but it is dismaying, to put it mildly, to read that with the exception of Benjathkui, the director decided “it was better to use straight actors playing gays than to use gay actors because I didn’t want my audiences focusing on the ‘gayness’ of my cast.”

Heaven forbid audiences should do that while watching a movie about an actual male volleyball team that opened its tryouts for all men regardless of sexual orientation and wound up becoming national champions as a result.

Unrated. Times guidelines: strong language, mature themes.

‘The Iron Ladies’

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Chaichan Nimpoonsawas: Jung

Sahaparp Virakamin: Mon

Siridhana Hongsophon: Coach Bee

Jessdaporn Pholdee: Chai

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A Strand Releasing presentation of a Tai Entertainment Co. Production. Director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon. Producer Visute Poolvoralaks. Screenplay Visuthichai Boonyakarinjana, Jira Maligool and Thongkongtoon. Cinematographer Jira Maligool. Editor Sunit Assavinikul. Music Wild at Heart. Costumes Ekkasit Meeprasertkul. Art director Narucha Vijitvarit. In Thai, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart for one week, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.


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