Thai Me Up! Thai Me Down!

From its jaw-droppingly tacky opening credit sequence to the blatant heart-tugging of its final scenes, the Thai import Iron Ladies is shallow, manipulative, badly made and almost completely predictable. It's also an awful lot of fun. The second highest grossing movie ever in Thailand, Iron Ladies is the true story of a Thai male volleyball team composed almost entirely of gay men, cross-dressers and even a bona fide transsexual. The real Iron Ladies went on to win the national championships in 1996 and became local celebrities and something of a genuine pop phenomenon back in Thailand. The movie Iron Ladies, for its part, has done respectfully outside of its native country, playing mostly at gay and lesbian film festivals around Europe and in the States, where it has racked up audience choice awards at prestigious fests such as the ones in New York and San Francisco.

Then again, context is everything. It's relatively easy to be forgiving of a flawed film like Iron Ladies in the midst of a wildly appreciative, standing-room-only crowd — which is how I originally experienced the movie during opening night of the most recent Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Some audience members were decked out in fashions as outre as those of the characters from the film and others seemed intent on memorizing the dialogue, as if looking toward future Rocky Horror Show-style performances. Needless to say, a grand old time was had by all.

Watching Iron Ladies without benefit of the communal audience participation that its upbeat campiness invites — which is how I revisited the film, all by myself — is an altogether different sort of experience. The wall-to-wall cliches of the storyline just seem to hang there in the air, exposed and with nowhere to go, while the comedy bits begin to seem way too broad and just short of patronizing of the gay characters. And when the film isn't trying to be funny it generally reverts into a mode that's either preachy or downright sappy (and sometimes both at once). The movie has numerous problems and most of them practically leap off the screen.

So why is it that Iron Ladies is still so much fun to watch? Maybe it's the movie's breezy, chirpy attitude and refreshing lack of sophistication. Maybe it's the sheer exotica factor of getting a peek at the rarely glimpsed drag queen subculture of Thailand. Maybe it's those great, retro Thai pop tunes peppered throughout the movie (including a killer rendition of the Bay City Rollers' Saturday Night). Maybe it's just that the film is so persistent about getting us to like it, like a love-starved puppy peeing all over itself as it frantically leaps up to lick at our faces. The movie tries so hard we can practically hear it panting for breath.

In any event, it's a safe bet that Iron Ladies won't wind up in too many people's personal pantheons of great drag flicks. There's no way around the fact that it lacks the visual flair, memorable performances or heights of sheer imagination of films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And yet, with its low-rent, pretense-free, warts-n-all charm, Iron Ladies makes an interesting addition to that short list.

Outside the exotic Asian trappings and the outsider sexuality of the characters, the story here will seem all too familiar to anyone who's ever seen a Hollywood movie about a team of misfit athletes, Bad News Bears not excluded. The Iron Ladies' lineup includes: a sly, sweet and slightly bitchy team leader; a cosmetically enhanced glam queen recruited from an upscale male cabaret; a hulking army sergeant with perfectly manicured nails and the tender heart of a child; and a closeted rich kid whose father always knew he was destined to be a great sportsman because "ever since he was little, he liked looking at pictures of men with big muscles."

Rounding out the cast are the team's token straight guy (who, wouldn't you just know it, eventually learns to overcome his own gender prejudices and preconceptions), three mincing, Thai Oompa Loompas named April, May and June (apparent proof that human cloning is already a fact) and a plucky, lesbian coach who teaches the Iron Ladies to be all that they can be. As you've probably already figured out, the characters gradually begin to believe in themselves both as individuals and as a team, and eventually — against all odds, which is exactly the point of movies like this one — they start winning games.

The story is uncomplicated but relatively lively, with all of the essential building blocks of traditional drama included — humor, of course, but also heart (struggling and bonding abound), pathos (much is made of the Ladies' assorted unhappy relationships), suspense (will our guy-gals win the big game? Gosh, I wonder!), and an assortment of super-macho villains. There's a long, slow middle section overloaded with earnest speeches (mostly amounting to variations on "Why can't we all just get along?") and some minor squabbling between the various team members. Never fear, though. Everyone eventually kisses and makes up.

Taking up the slack in between, there's lots of groovy, Abba-like, Thai pop-propelled sequences featuring silly but triumphant drag queens practicing their moves, bopping down the boulevards and beating the crap out of their opponents on the volleyball court. The Iron Ladies all engage in copious amounts of mincing, pouting and squawking, and periodically emit enormous squeals of girlish delight in unison — exaggerated stereotypes that flirt with Steppin Fetchit-styled offense but stop right at the edge. The fact that the Ladies are pretty much all played by straight actors only adds to the potential dodginess of the over-the-top characterizations.

Still, for the most part, Iron Ladies keeps us smiling. There's nothing in the film that really measures up to the footage we see during the closing credits of the real Iron Ladies at work and play, but don't let that stop you from getting all the enjoyment possible out of their make-believe, movie counterparts. And if at all possible, do try to dress up for the occasion and see it with a large, friendly crowd.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.