Review: Iron Ladies (2001)

Bah to those silly boys who quit the team, they must be kicking themselves now. In 1996, the Iron Ladies made Thai history by becoming national volleyball champions. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, other than the fact that all bar one of the team members is a heterosexual male. That’s the novelty, but the more serious issue and the heart of the story lies in the adversities and prejudices they had to face to get there.

The Iron Ladies had everything against them from day one — a female coach, Bee (Shiriohana Hongsopon), out of favour with the rest of the coaches because of her gender despite her proven winning record and experience as a volleyball coach.

Then there is the team: Mon, Nong, Jung, Pia and Wit — openly gay, transsexuals or tranvestites. The team captain, Chai, is heterosexual, uncomfortable with his team members and he doesn’t mind making his feelings known either. Their sexuallity invite a lot prejudice and bias not only from the rest of the volleyball community but also their own friends and family. The Iron Ladies discover that the biggest obstacle are not other people but themselves.

Not taking any credit away from the real Iron Ladies, the film itself follows the tried and true formula of great sporting movies where the underdogs overcome seemingly impossible odds to triumph at the end. However, it’s how they do it that matters and oh dahhhhleeeeng, *how* they did it. Yes, its campy, good humoured energy is pretty infectious. Iron Ladies is irrepressible right from the word go — cramming more jokes in half an hour than the whole of Priscilla. The first hour zips past breezily as Mon and Jung dig up old uni friends who were into volleyball. Although some may criticise it for perpetuating stereotypes with its over the top, effeminate and campy portrayals of the players, the overall message is positive and on the spirit of tolerance. Yes there are many jokes at the players expense [Nong breaks his nails and cries, the team morale is down when they don’t wear makeup] Yes you laugh at them but you will also laugh with them.

Although the second half does sag a little under some rather unnecessary inclusions of gags, there are enough tense sporting moments to carry it off. The director shoots his subjects with a sympathetic eye but is never patronising. He shows that behind the campy, over the top bravado — they are very fragile, even more so because they have been marginalised all their lives. It is affectionate, cheeky and campy right down to its sparkly tiara. The ensemble cast kicks the at times average material into a higher level, with an inspired performance by Shiriohana Hongsopon who plays the zen-like Coach Bee.

The best thing after having been entertained by their hijinks is being reminded that it is a true story, obviously without all the cinematic bells and whistles but with real blood, sweat and tears. The closing credits has real-life footage of the Iron Ladies. Seriously good value!

8 rice-cakes out of 10.
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