Sporty Little Number

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Thai audiences are lapping up a controversial movie that deals with gay and transsexual issues

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. It is 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.

And the audiences are eating it up. In its first two weeks, Satree Lex, based on the katoey-led volleyball team that won a real-life national championship in 1996, has reeled in $1.75 million and is on its way to becoming Thailand's second-highest-grossing film ever (after last year's Nang Nark). Satree Lex is 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. International companies are eyeing the film for distribution overseas, betting that its sight gags and bawdy repartee--plus its message of acceptance--will have a broad appeal, even if the phenomenon of katoey athletes is uniquely Thai.

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 United States. 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. Many of the film's most powerful scenes involve exchanges between the team's heterosexual captain, Chai, and the group, who refer to themselves as the tootsies. The dialogue bristles with unresolved tensions that reflect the ambivalence among katoey, gays and the rest of society. Most Thai homosexuals still feel it prudent to hide their identity, says Pakorn Pimmanee, who organized Bangkok's first Gay Carnival last year. The police gave us a permit because they didn't understand what the carnival was, Pakorn says. Having seen 7,000 gay people show up, I don't think they'll be giving us another. Andrew Matzner, an anthropologist who has written on transgenderism in Thailand, cautions that tolerance does not equal acceptance. It doesn't mean negative social sanctions against [gays and katoey] do not exist.

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 Satree Lex reinforce clich�d images of katoey, who are almost always protrayed in Thai entertainment as one-dimensional comic foils. It's a technically bad film, and the characters are stereotypes, complains Scott Rosenberg, Bangkok correspondent for Variety, a U.S. entertainment-industry newspaper. He expects Satree Lex will fail overseas. 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. I think it's a great movie that shows the real life of the katoey, says Nong Toom, the celebrated kickboxer. If Satree Lex catches on overseas, it could become the most widely seen Thai film ever. And that would surely shake up the grandees of Thai sport who four years ago slammed the closet door shut on the real Satree Lex.