Yongyoot Thongkongthun was prepared for anything. Days before the premier of his first feature film, producers at Tai Entertainment warned the young director that audiences might have trouble with his movie, Satree Lex, or The Iron Ladies as it is known in the West. It was certainly a gamble: a sports movie and a comedy, genres that don't often appeal to Thai moviegoers. Riskier still, the lead characters include a lesbian and five katoey-a Thai term that covers transsexuals, transvestites and effeminate gay men. Says the 33-year-old Yongyoot: "I broke every taboo in the business."
Thai audiences ate it up. In its first two weeks, The Iron Ladies, the story of the katoey-led volleyball team (named Satree Lex) that won a national championship in 1996, reeled in $1.75 million on its way to becoming Thailand's second-highest-grossing film ever. It's "a major step forward for Thai films, which are generally pretty awful," says Kiccha Buranond, a correspondent for Dichan, a Thai women's magazine. "The characters are developed, they're hilarious and they really touch your heart." Even if the phenomenon of katoey athletes is uniquely Thai, its appeal seems to be universal: The Iron Ladies topped the Hong Kong box office on its release last September, and recently the film opened in Australia, where it was voted most popular movie at Sydney's Mardi Gras Film Festival.
Katoey are everywhere in Thailand, working as fashion models, civil servants, sales clerks, scientists, bank tellers. Thailand's best-known sportsperson is surely Nong Toom, a transvestite kickboxer who has been featured in Time and Sports Illustrated. Buddhism doesn't demonize homosexuality, and Thailand has little of the homophobic violence prevalent in, for example, the U.S. Thais of all inclinations rooted for the real Satree Lex. "Katoeys don't face a lot of serious problems here," says Kokkorn Benjatikul, the only real katoey actor in the film.
That said, Thais remain conflicted about homosexuality and katoey, and the movie highlights that unease. "We're like the forgotten orphans of society," laments Kokkorn's character, Pia, as he faces discrimination from sports officials. In recent years, the government has tried to ban gays from jobs at teachers' colleges and told television producers to stop using katoey characters. Despite winning the '96 championship, members of the real Satree Lex were not allowed to play for the national team: sports officials worried the presence of transvestite players would tarnish Thailand's reputation. At the same time, officials have tried to cash in on the katoey. The Tourism Authority advertises transvestite cabarets as attractions.
Despite the film's sympathetic slant, a few of the characters in The Iron Ladies reinforce clichéd images of katoey, who are almost always protrayed in Thai entertainment as one-dimensional comic foils. But for every cartoonish character like Nong, an amazonian army recruit with olive sparkle nail polish, there are individuals like Mon, a striker struggling to overcome his anger and alienation. Together, they're making sure The Iron Ladies becomes the most widely seen Thai film ever-as well as keeping open the closet door which slammed on the real Satree Lex five years ago.