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Iron Ladies
Iron Ladies

Two films so dissimilar to each other as to demolish any definition of Asian cinema in terms of content or genre: a stylish romance set in 60s Hong Kong and a contemporary gay Thai true-life story. Talk about chalk and cheese, but fascinating nevertheless to witness how such diverse products can come to fruition, find an audience and create a market.

Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love picked up prizes at Cannes and has been a big hit with European critics. In parts it is reminiscent of Kieslowski, for better or worse, an appropriately moody love story set in the narrow confines—physically and culturally—of Hong Kong in 1962 where Mrs Chen (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung) are neighbours who discover that they share more than just a common boundary. The realisation that their partners are having an affair forces the lonely duo together, a contradictory position in which they are attracted and repelled by the possibility of becoming like their unfaithful partners. It’s a delicate conundrum which neatly captures the double-edged nature of desire—trying to become what the loved one wants while simultaneously realising that, in doing so, one becomes what one is not.

This low-key discrete affair is played out against a network of mutual obligations and favours, debts and payback, credit and loss. There is a constant process of exchange as characters brush against each other—compliments and greetings, gifts that circulate as symbolic carriers of meaning—and other day-to-day contracts such as arrangements to meet, or part. And when it doesn’t always work, everybody always has an excuse or evasion to maintain appearances.

All this could be very ordinary, an everyday affair, but Wong Kar Wai (and Mark Li Ping-bing and Chris Doyle’s cinematography) imbues it with a suitably heightened perspective. The gorgeous interiors seem to absorb their inhabitants, blocking a clear view of events so that we witness everything through screens and mirrors, at the ends of corridors or off-screen through open doorways. We hardly see the adulterous couple at all, while their play-acting alter egos are constantly in rehearsal, replaying scenes with obsessive compulsion, wanting to know but never for certain. At other moments, the impassive faces of Cheung and Leung are offered up like matinee idols, a seductive blankness hinting at passionate depths, or perhaps nothing at all.

And if it seems as if this could go on forever, that’s because the narrative carefully avoids the regular rhythms of climax and release, crisis and resolution. Instead, the lovers simply continue to miss each other—literally and emotionally—until it all comes to an abrupt stop at Angkor Wat. The spell is broken and, after a lingering last look at the ruins, it is almost as if nothing ever happened.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the planet, Iron Ladies tells the real life story of Mon and Jung whose dream of playing volleyball is thwarted by homophobic team-mates who refuse to let them join the team. The duo must then enlist the help of gay friends, transsexuals, transvestites and a token straight to build a new team. Will the Iron Ladies overcome blatant discrimination and intimidation to become national volleyball champions? This combination of sport and identity politics, like Priscilla meets The Mighty Ducks, helped to make Iron Ladies the second-highest grossing Thai film of all time. The plot may be fairly ploddy and the message is hammered (spiked?) home but there are enough moments of subversive good humour to keep it alive, such as when the team overcomes a desperate form slump by going into a huddle to apply a bit more lippy (and you thought they were only talking tactics). Wait for the credits with this one to see how art (film) imitates life (television).

In the Mood for Love, writer-director Wong Kar Wai, distributor Dendy Films, opened Sydney March 29; Iron Ladies, director Yongyooth Thonkonthun, writers Visuthichai Bunyakarnjana, Jira Malikul & Yongyooh Thongkonthun, distributor Dendy Films, premiered 2001 Mardi Gras Film Festival, opened Sydney March 15, Melbourne March 22 & other states to follow

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 14

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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