A brand new genre of romantic comedy has landed on our entertainment shores in a time when everything is closed and in a world where everything has changed
BL or “Boy Love” or Yaoi is a love story genre of the gay persuasion with origins in anime. Over the 130 plus days of quarantine, I have binge-watched all the content I could consume–movies, old and new, TV series, old classics, and new favorites, on streaming services, search engines, and mobile apps. I was already having a bit of K-drama fatigue when I came across BL in the simultaneous coming-of-age story 2gether: The Series created by Thailand’s GMMTV.
2gether: The Series is a story about a freshman boy named Tine who is pestered by a persistent gay stalker, so he enlists the help of elusive sophomore, Sarawat, the most popular guy in school, to be his pretend boyfriend so his stalker would leave him alone. As Tine courts Sarawat to be his “fake boyfriend,” Sarawat’s true feelings are revealed as the two high school boys’ friendship deepens when they spend more time with each other. Sarawat gets into the game but courts Tine back for real. It is never pretend for him. Tine is all of overwhelmed, confused and elated by this. This becomes his awakening to the joys and depths of falling in love for the first time. It’s fresh. It’s light. It’s new. It’s totally normal.
The series is one season long at 13 episodes and 50 minutes an episode. That’s 30 minutes less than the average K-drama that runs at about 80 minutes per episode and 16 episodes for one season. So, it’s a very easy watch compared to our favorite lengthy, indulgent “kilig” K-dramas.
Because of the success of 2gether: The Series, its two young, virtually unknown lead stars, Win Metawin and Bright Vachirawit, have become the newest, most sought-after Asian loveteam catapulted into teen superstardom with a 3.4 million and 4.7 million Instagram following respectively, and dozens of endorsements in tow. The series is so successful that a second season is reported to be in the works, its “Tagalized” version now airs on iWant TV and it will also soon be available on Netflix.
Personally, the great thing about this show is that it treats the love of two boys like any other. Their falling in love is just the same as any other two people falling in love. It’s neither taboo nor special–it normalizes this kind of love, because when you really come down to it, falling in love for the first time is the most universal of feelings, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re both boys. First love is the same for everyone.
The phenomenal success of BL in Japan and Thailand is something Filipino creators have recently been inspired by and something they want to replicate for the Philippine audience. Just a few years ago, you would never have thought that a love story between two boys would be possible on the main screen. It was mostly reserved subject for indie or experimental films, but because of BL’s growing popularity in the region, these stories have been sprouting like mushrooms and have become the new content offering from both boutique production houses and studio-backed film entities alike. BL has made it to mainstream.
Quite notably, Black Sheep’s first-ever digital series, Hello Strangeris the very first Pinoy BL I came across. Coming from a major film studio, my expectations were very high.
Launched just in time for pride celebrations, the series stars popular matinee idol Tony Labrusca and newbie JC Alcantara. The premise is that of two boys meeting online when Mico (Alcantara) organizes an online quiz night with his friends, which Xavier (Labrusca), the school jock and basketball varsity player, crashes. Xavier’s arrogance irks Mico and is quick to “cancel” him, but little does he know that a school project would bring them together and force them to work as a team. Throughout their online correspondence, Mico sees a different side of Xavier, a more vulnerable, gentle and playful side, and this becomes the seed of his attraction towards him. Xavier, on the other hand, finds a confidante in Mico, somebody he can trust with his feelings. At five episodes as of press time, both characters have acknowledged their feelings for each other.
When I saw the pilot episode, my initial reaction was that it was so well-produced given the restrictions of shooting during a lockdown. The photography was brilliant, the music was impactful, the graphics were superb, and the support cast was notable.
But I felt something was missing. It did not have the BL magic.
Then upon many recommendations, I saw Gameboysby The Idea First Company. What I felt lacking in Hello Stranger, Gameboys had oodles of.
Starring super young, fresh-faced actors Kokoy De Santos and Elijah Canlas, the series is about two young gamers challenging each other to a friendly game online. Innocent Cairo (Canlas) accepts the challenge of impetuous Gavreel (De Santos) and unwittingly finds himself at the center of his playful advances. If Gavreel wins, then Cairo would agree to be courted by him.
At 8 episodes as of press time, Gameboys feels like a series about the emerging world of Gen Z made by Gen Z creators. The story is unique, individual, respectful of gender issues and mindful of the COVID-19 crisis. It is able to give you a full preview of the entire series and the thesis of Pinoy BL all inside of 10 minutes of the pilot.
The storytelling is very fast-paced, the acting is authentic, the graphics are new and sophisticated, and the music guides you to feel what the characters are currently feeling. As the story progresses, backstories are revealed and the characters are given a kind of depth that virtually tugs at your heart and makes you want to cry. It is beautifully told in a very new way, yet it feels so familiar it’s as if you are transported back to the very first time you ever fell in love.
Gameboys shows the audience the many vulnerabilities and complexities of two young boys falling in love while Hello Stranger merely scratches the surface. While Gameboys is groundbreaking, original and aware, Hello Stranger is just another manufactured Star Cinema product. While one is fierce, the other is formula.
Here are some of the reasons why:
Casting: The fresh new cast of Gameboys allows you to meet the characters without any preconceived biases. You are getting to know them at the same time they are getting to know themselves and each other. Hello Stranger features an already well-known character actor playing a role that is too young for him opposite an up-and-comer who is so obviously overacting the role. The difference between the portrayals are authenticity and chemistry. Gameboys has them while Hello Stranger simply does not. And this is considering that the characters in Hello Stranger have already physically met by end of Episode 4 while the leads of Gameboys are still yet to meet even at the end of Episode 8. (The Twitter flirtation between the two actors of Hello Stranger also feels like a whole lot of gimmickry, designed by the studio to titillate the audience to make up for the show’s lack of chemistry.)
Storytelling: Gameboys organically unfolds, unafraid to take the narrative from “kilig” to kinky and from tragic lows to ecstatic highs. Hello Stranger feels like a slow burn that suddenly rushes into a forced connection that you feel totally unprepared for.
Direction: The difference between the vision of Gameboys and Hello Stranger is that in Gameboys, director Ivan Andrew Payawal takes the viewer to a new experience, introducing a new kind of love in an intriguing new dimension to an audience that has felt so underrepresented for so long. While in Hello Stranger, director Petersen Vargas simply applies the time-tested male-female loveteam studio formula and interprets it for a new genre. And that is why a disconnect is felt right from the start. For a genre as new as this, the treatment and handling should be as special.
A few other Pinoy BL series are currently streaming like Darryl Yap’s Sakristan, Adolf Alix’ Unlocked, Brilliant Juan’s In Between, Firestarter’s Kamusta Bro? and there will be more. But I hope that the trail blazed by Gameboys becomes the standard on all other Pinoy BLs are made.
Then maybe our new normal can really be this. That boys can love boys the way boys love girls and girls love boys and that shouldn’t matter because it has become our “new normal.” Then maybe one day, it will no longer be called Boy Love, it will just simply be called Love.
Editor’s Note: G3’s well-written analysis on the emergence of the BL in the region was written at the same time these shows gained traction. Successful series 2gether has since sparked 2 more seasons.
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