Heroes in high heels

Eight years ago, the dictionary publisher Longman was forced to apologise to the Thai government after defining Bangkok as “a place where there are a lot of prostitutes”.

The Thai population was outraged at such reckless generalisation, but the incident highlighted how little control developing countries have over their global image. (Admittedly, the fact that the deputy finance minister was caught hiring call-girls a few weeks later didn’t help.) But a new Thai film, The Iron Ladies, has shown how cultural stereotypes can be turned into national assets and there are signs that a resurgent film industry is helping the country regain control of its own identity.

Directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, The Iron Ladies tells the true story of the Lampang District volleyball team, which won Thailand’s national championships in 1996 with a team composed of homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals, with a lesbian coach. A cross between The Full Monty and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, its primary audience was domestic and it is the second-most successful Thai film ever.

Such comedies have become the perfect export vehicle for smaller film-producing nations — quirky, feel-good entertainment with a good-natured message of social tolerance. The Iron Ladies played across Asia, the United States, Australia and Europe, scooping festival awards as it went. This week it comes to South Africa.

I spoke to three of its minor stars, April, May and June, a trio of colour-coordinated cross-dressers who are the film’s unofficial ambassadors. “We get recognised everywhere we go now,” says April (Phromsit Sittijumlearnkun). “When we were in Hong Kong, they even gave us a discount on our fake Vivienne Westwood pendants,” they say, brandishing their matching jewellery.

April and May, who are identical twins, previously worked with the film’s director on television commercials. June (Anuch Chatkaew) worked for the model agency that supplied one of the film’s stars. Most of the rest of the cast are straight, a conscious decision by the director to drive home the film’s message.

“Thailand is different to the rest of Asia, it’s more like London,” says April. “In Singapore or Malaysia, if you’re gay, you can’t be camp like us, you must look straight. All the gays from south-east Asia come to Bangkok, especially for the mardi gras, which is the only one in south-east Asia.”

But gay culture in Thailand goes far deeper than sex tourism. Katoeys, or “ladyboys”, pre-date the influx of the US military during the Vietnam war that made Bangkok’s sex industry global. And men have taken women’s roles in theatre for hundreds of years. There is also a substantial population of ordinary gay professionals along Western lines, tacitly accepted by Thailand’s Buddhist society.

Government attitudes are less liberal, though. Film guidelines, for example, adhere to a code of near-Victorian rigour. Audiences must stand for the national anthem before the programme and taboo subjects include drinking, smoking and gambling as well as nudity and sexual activity. Rather than being cut out, the offending material is simply blurred on screen, as if someone had smeared Vaseline over the lens.

The official line on homosexuality is also disapproving. The real volleyball team behind The Iron Ladies experienced discrimination at every stage. As the film shows, the team’s raison d’être was local prejudice: heterosexual players refused to be in a team with them, so they had to form their own side.

But even after they won the national championships, none of them was selected for the national squad. An official of the Volleyball Association of Thailand justified this by saying: “If we travel abroad, foreigners might think that Thailand doesn’t have enough real men for its team. It would harm the country’s reputation.”

Thongkongtoon says: “Their real struggle and their friendship inspired me to make the film. Audiences should acknowledge the fact that people with different attitudes can co-exist happily. I respect individuality.

“I know I cannot change other people’s attitudes, but I can yell mine out loud through my movies. So this movie was entirely made to entertain Thai people and we wanted audiences of all sexes and ages to be able to enjoy it. Therefore we made the story simple, and that was lucky because it was also easy to understand by international audiences.”

Womad takes place from September 28 to 30 at the Bluegum Creek Estate in Benoni. There will be no performances on Friday. A two-day pass for Saturday and Sunday costs R185. Tickets for Saturday only are R120 and for Sunday R85. Booking is at Ticketweb 0861 400 500.

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