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Ladyboys

Filmbesprechung von Andrew Matzner

Moving westward to Thailand, we encounter Ladyboys (Water Bearer Films; 1992; 53 min.), a professionally shot and staged production that showcases scores of stunning mtf cross-dressers (katoey). The main story-line concerns Ott (the film's narrator) and Dot, a pair of young and attractive katoey who are striving to make their fortunes in a society in which they often find themselves treated with a mixture of fascination and disgust.

The first part of the film follows the efforts of the two as they get ready to compete in a huge upcountry katoey beauty pageant. With skillful camera-work following pre-contest preparations, as well as the actual event itself, viewers are treated to an often ignored part of Thai culture.

Having failed to win the contest, Ott and Dot decide to uproot themselves from their families and travel south from their homes in Chiang Mai. They hope to find success in Pattaya, a seaside (sex) tourist mecca not far from Bangkok.

Once they've arrived at their destination, Ott and Dot follow different courses. Ott heads straight to Alcazar, a cavernous stadium-like theater which is home to a slickly produced female impersonation show. Scores of foreign tourists are bussed in daily for the cabaret's numerous performances, making Alcazar one of the most popular destinations in Pattaya. A job here means good money, but naturally competition is fierce. Ott, who gets a tryout only because of family connections, quickly discovers that she is not skilled enough to land a spot.

Meanwhile, Dot manages to land a job as a comic actress in a much lower-scale (i.e. raunchier) female-impersonation show. This means garish make-up and ridiculous costumes, taking Dot far away from the beauty queen days of only weeks before, when she was at her feminine finest on the contest stage.

And thus the film ends in irony, with Dot in a new unglamorous job and Ott, lonely and discouraged, setting her sights on becoming a male go-go dancer/prostitute, an occupation more easily entered than Alcazar's gilded gates.

As a human interest story, Ladyboys offers a rare glimpse into Thai transgendered lives. Most of the Western literature about katoey is smothered in clichés and generalizations. Hence it is refreshing to by-pass the academics and learn about the hopes andfears of katoey firsthand. Besides presenting wonderfully shot scenes of a katoey beauty contest, the film-makers also provide plenty of footage of transgender lives that would otherwise be difficult for foreigners to access. For example, at one point early in the film, Dot is filmed in the "safe house" she has set up for pre-adolescent katoey, which is located on her family's property. The images of Dot interacting with and giving advice to a small group of young cross-dressers (who appear to be around ten years old) are quite striking.

Yet as a documentary which purports to provide knowledge about what it means to be a katoey, this film suffers from several serious issues. First, although Ott narrates the film in fluent English, it is not made clear how this 17 year old country boy managed to learn it. Tellingly, in one scene with a foreigner, neither Ott nor Dot communicate with him in English. This leads me to wonder two things: First, if Ott is not really narrating, then who is? The credits offer no clues. Second, is "Ott's" narration really her own? That is, was it written for her by someone else? Passing off Ott's narration as her own is disingenuous, and calls the integrity of the documentary into question.

Secondly, the film only lightly touches on issues of acceptance and identity. Ott narrates, "We know that society is supposed to be tolerant, but in a new moral climate, we are called the 'unacceptable face of Thailand'". The film never explains what the "new moral climate" is, or what has brought it about. In addtion, Ott consistently uses male pronouns to refer to katoey, as well as calling them, "the boys". The existence of transsexual identities is never brought up.

Finally, there are long stretches of Thai dialogue in this film that are left untranslated. To me, this is unacceptable. The non-Thai speaker can only sit and wait out these scenes, wondering what she or he is missing. The Thai-speaker, however, upon listening to the interesting dialogue between katoey, or between katoey and family members, ends up being completely puzzled as to why the film-makers had decided not to let their audience in on some fascinating information. I simply can not understand why the voices of katoey regarding issues such as familial acceptance and the effects of transsexual surgery and hormones were silenced by the lack of an English translation.

In the end, however, I must commend Ladyboys for its technically well-produced depictions of the lives of katoey. It is a film that certainly inspired me to learn more about transgenderism in Thailand. Nevertheless, I still get an uneasy feeling whenever I watch it. For a documentary, it seems a bit contrived. There are too many unanswered questions regarding how the film was made, and why.