Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Iron Ladies

The verdict: It does have some redeeming qualities beyond the novelty value… it’s fairly well acted (except for the coach) and the theme of acceptance is handled well for roughly half the movie, getting heavy-handed towards the end, where the zaniness also ruins it a little.

Craziness: It’s pretty crazy, but not always in a zany sense, just the concept (which is a true story)… and most of the characters… and, um, the musical number.

The rating: 6/10

'Iron Ladies' is the true story of the male volleyball team that won the Thai National Championships in 1996 against all the odds. So you might be forgiven for thinking it's in the mould of inspirational rise-of-the-underdog Hollywood sporting stories such as 'Remember the Titans' or 'Coach Carter'? Weeellll… not… quite. I might defer to the blurb on the back of the DVD case here, and I quote: "Their skills and talents of playing volleyball are second to none. What matter is that most of them are gays."

Ahem... 'nuff said really. Essentially Iron Ladies tells the story of a group of guys who were good at a particular sport, but not allowed play because they batted for the other side. (And not in a sporting sense. Mwaa ha! – Ed). Not to be put off though, the lads clubbed together, and formed a team good enough to win the national championships, and gain massive media attention, winning over the Thai nation in the process.

The team members pretty much represent the entire spectrum of homosexuality, from the token straight guy, to the guy still in the closet, the openly gay one, the flamboyantly open, the flamboyantly feminine, the transgender one, and of course the camp triplets. I didn’t make any of that up by the way, and neither apparently did the film-makers, as this story can be verified by the archive newsreel footage that plays during the closing credits. These guys are represented pretty faithfully by the looks of things, and the archive footage is almost better than the movie to be honest.

The story is from a very familiar boiler-plate, but with such a fundamental variation from the traditionally alpha-male dominated sports flick, that it almost manages to hold the interest through to the end, despite being eventually loaded with clichés, bad acting and one very sketchy musical number.

The first half of the movie is the stronger, with two friends Mon and Jung deciding against a move to Bangkok because they want to try out for the district 5 volleyball team. Mon is used to rejection for being gay, despite being great at the sport, and is ready to quit, but Jung, an irrepressible flamer - pardon the expression - with a mouth as foul as a Glasgow welder, persuades him to stay and try out for the district 5 team.

The lads try out, and are picked, but the macho alpha male Mann persuades everyone on the team to quit, possibly in protest at having to play for a team that isn’t quite sure which showers to use after practice. Actually, not everyone quits, one guy stays because he can’t stand the homophobic views the posturing Mann. (So he ends up being 'the only straight in the village?' Tee hee – Ed) So, the lads are forced to assemble a team themselves, and this leads to the eventual assembly of a crew so damn motley, even Tommy Lee can't watch.

'Iron Ladies' plays with the audience's curiosity factor in the team's novelty value, in that there is a real sense of awe that this film is actually unfolding on screen in front of your eyes, but also the double whammy of it actually being a true story. This reflects the media treatment the Iron Ladies got when they went on to go on a successful run in the Thai National Volleyball championships in 1996.

There are themes going on here too though, mainly in the first half of the movie. Jung's parents are totally accepting of their son's situation, and are great with him, but Wit – the kid still in the closet – isn’t so lucky, and the media coverage the rest of the Iron Ladies enjoyed didn't work out quite so well for him. The acceptance of the tournament organisers is questionable too, and this leads to some fairly predictable panto-style cum-uppances in the second half of the movie. (Ooh, pardon? More tea, vicar!? – Ed)

So it does descend into sports movie cliché eventually, but the first hour of the film is very likeable, with the main characters not just comically camp cardboard cutouts, but actually displaying genuine personality under the flaming facades.

The musical number towards the end is kind of car-crash viewing, but I don’t know, maybe that’s normal in Thai films… (Not in Tony Jaa movies – Ed). Thankfully, either the lighting is so bad, or the international DVD quality so poor that I couldn’t really see it all that well. Unfortunately, the sound was fine….

Eventually it all becomes a 'be yourself and you can achieve anything' Hollywood-style movie in the same vein as something like 'When Saturday Comes' except with Sean Bean replaced by Dale Winton, and the rest of Sheffield United team played by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Pet Shop Boys, and those lads from Little Britain. (Sounds like a Bafta vehicle to me – Ed)

Unsurprisingly, given its domestic success, Iron Ladies has spawned a successful sequel (prequel actually - Ed) in Thailand. However, though this one had serious novelty value, I won’t be rushing out to get my hands on the next Iron Ladies outing. (Oooh, Pardon!? More tea Vicar!? … ahem – Ed)

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