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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

SEE WHAT SEE: BOYS’ LOVE (BL) DRAMAS

By Lainie Yeoh

I grew up in an era where queer films were rare exceptions and it was your holy gay-af duty to watch all the ones you could access. Yes, even if they’re mostly about white people processing their feelings; or painfully slow art films by gay Asian men thinly disguising their personal journeys; or lesbian misery. Outside of queer films and musicals1Arguably, these two intersect a lot., I usually have no interest in the romance genre.

Yet even in the ’90s, if one looked past access to Hollywood films, my young hands could have chosen to pick up other types of queer media — especially Boys’ Love. As a genre, Boys’ Love (usually known as BL) features male to male relationships in content marketed to women.2This reminds me of ‘90s boy bands — I think the ‘gay men’ part of the audience was just left unsaid then, a sign of the times. There are various manifestations of Boys’ Love markets: I was most familiar with BL Japanese manga. Shounen-ai manga featured more tame emotional depictions of romantic love between men, while Yaoi manga was very much into the sexual nature of it. Neither genre worked for me.

Now in the fresh era of COVID lockdowns, my friends and I do a watch party three nights a week. Most nights centre on danmei shows —  耽美, literally meaning ‘indulging beauty’, is China’s TV answer to boys’ love-inspired texts.3How does someone uninterested in romance end up in danmei watch parties? I suggested Umbrella Academy — it was such an incoherent hate-watch experience from start to end that I’ve been temporarily relieved of curation duties. The gentle nature of manly relationships in these films do tend to feel like an escape from reality, currently rife with both a pandemic and toxic ideas of manhood.

By the time the Chinese homoerotic (or sometimes just explicitly homosexual) stories get transferred to screens, the content has been adapted to be just within the realm of heterosexuality, and not a breath more.4Part of the sport for our watch party is to identify when the gay moments have been glossed over in film, leaving highly motivated acts of chivalry between men quite unexplained. The creators know their fan base, and their censors. For example, Mo Dao Zu Shi is a danmei novel that features kissing and sex between the two main male characters, and they confess their love for each other at the end. However, in its TV adaptation The Untamed, they call each other soul mates — leaving room for danmei fans to read romantic love between them, and others to see platonic lifelong companions. The more explicit materials are left out, but the non-sexual intimate moments and lingering eye contact remains.

I suspect many fans of the Boys’ Love genre enjoy the coy process of having their films stay in the closet, but with the doors wide open. It is a shame then, given China’s crackdown of ‘sissy men’ in entertainment, that we are not sure how much longer we can sustain our danmei watch parties before these videos are scrubbed from the internet.

When the opportunity to watch Southeast Asian BL films for this article came along, it seemed like the universe was calling me to let more (boys’) love in. 

I first turned to Netflix. The app doubted my ability to suddenly pivot to Boys’ Love content. I had never seen such low compatibility ratings on the platform before (48%?). A dubious start, but I persevered, before eventually casting my gaze upon the rest of the internet.

A quick survey revealed that some countries are producing a disproportionate amount of Boys’ Love content. The Thais (of course) dominate the genre5See 2gether, the hit Thai series which can be found on Netflix., and the Filipinos are quickly catching up. I hope Boys’ Love (and queer) content in SEA takes off like a PopCat ranking competition6Read this if you need a Popcat primer..

Outside of Southeast Asia, the Taiwanese and South Koreans are giants. Same-sex sexual activities are legal in these countries — this is, of course, not the same as being equal, but it does provide for more room of expression. That many of these shows are available online now also suggests that there is more room here for the freedom to express our selves, stories, and sexualities.

As for films, I ended up watching a variety: TV series, web shows, films, short films. Broadly speaking, I think Boys’ Love stories are about how relationships between young men can form, intensify, and change, when toxic masculinity does not get in the way of desire eventually finding a place. 

A Boys’ Love story likes to tease its audience by coming close, but also delaying that gratification through cute and shy ways across many episodes. There is a lot of aching — sad eyes, the loins, the hearts — all told with a tenderness that provides hope that the unhealthy fixations can lead to positive conclusions, be it romance or character development7I prefer the former — I’m already living in a pandemic, let me escape to a happier place..

The Boys’ Love stories I watched came with a certain self consciousness of their genre and fans. Nearly every show (especially if it’s a series) would openly mention BL tropes. Characters would remark that unfolding events resemble those found in popular Boys’ Love stories, like when a male love interest starts getting possessive, or when the childhood friend next door turns out to be a romantic possibility. The narrative is often secondary to the collage of beautiful male love fantasies and fan service that hold the story together.

Women can easily be made into the obstacles one must overcome in gay awakening stories, and the shows I watched generally made an effort to not be wickedly gleeful in this aspect. Boys’ Love is a genre pioneered ‘by women, for women’, and while this in no way precludes misogyny, it does mean that the violences that arise cater to an imagined female gaze. While BL series do increasingly try to be woke and inclusive, they are not free of patriarchal values, toxic relationships, or portrayals of dominant vs submissive roles. So while women are unlikely to be relegated to tragedies solely to spur a man into heroic action, the damsel this time may be an effeminate man.8Maybe I overthink it. I asked a particularly unromantic lesbian friend in our watch parties why she was watching BL films, and she bluntly said: “Well, for one thing, they inflict their romantic dumbassery on each other and not on women.” 

With that in mind, here are some BL content I think you might like too. My aim wasn’t to write about every blockbuster series, but rather, to present a few different types of shows, in the hopes that those curious about BL may find one suitable for them.

SERIES

Oh, Mando!

Oh hell yes. This Filipino series requires a sign up for an account, but hear me out — I think it’s worth it. This was my favourite of the lot. First of all, it started off weird with cheesy fantasy illustrations and musical theatrics, and that is a quick way to my heart (please keep hearing me out).

Titular character Mando, in full bisexual glory, dreams of himself as a Rapunzel meeting his prince charming. Mando is dreamy (and literally, in the first scene, dreaming), flawed, made of uwu vibes, and determined to pass as straight because he thinks Mando Sr will have an absolute fit otherwise. There is a fantasy element of destiny here — he meets the prince charming of his dreams (a flirty, himbo, gay jock), by bumping into him on the street.

What makes Mando work is the lead actor Kokoy de Santos, who makes his young character quite charming and approachable, even as he makes dubious romantic decisions. The story also presents a quandary: what happens when you start flirting with your girlfriend’s older brother? Bear in mind, he is so hot, you have to fake an asthma attack to hide your surging hormones. Also, I think this will be of relevance to some of you: there will be much to eyeball of actor Alex Diaz’s statuesque physique, be it emerging from the pool, straddling a motorcycle, or taking a shower.

 

The show makes a conscious effort to highlight diverse queer identities and mental health issues. This means we see the supporting cast of lesbian life partners, a trans woman, a stereotypically flippy-handed gay boy, allies, hurt partners of closeted queers, and more — each trotting out their lived rainbow experiences. The morality is dealt with a slightly heavy hand, but overall, the series gets more right than not. I also appreciate that when characters face criticism, it is a consequence of their actions and not their sexuality.

This series is done and dusted in six short episodes. Overall, I think it managed to densely pack many interests into a short amount of time. A good looking cast, characters that develop with the story, good intentions, and a crucial turning point in a romantic uwu boy’s life. If you’re looking for an introduction to BL content, this could be the show for you. If it turns out Boys’ Love is not your thing, well, it’s only about as long as Avengers: Endgame.

You can watch Episode 1 here. A full account on IwantTFC is required to watch the show legally, but there IS a 30-day trial. You can easily complete it within that time frame and decide if you want to retain the subscription after.

Lead actor Kokoy De Santos is also a star in BL series Gameboys, the show that launched him to stardom. It’s available on YouTube.

 

Ben X Jim

A lockdown BL series! Ben X Jim takes place in Metro Manila, from when the first COVID lockdown is announced, until quarantine measures are eased up following the vaccine rollout.

The duo are childhood friends; Ben’s first love Jim has returned during lockdown, and the two rekindle their old friendship. Both have blossomed since childhood into good looking young men. There are many cute flashbacks, as the duo find themselves reconstructing an old tree house, and spending intimate cosy nights drinking together, reminiscing and bonding.

Ben is whimsical, woke, and sits comfortably in his gay identity. Jim is an influencer, son of a politician, and a successful businessman. They share a flirtatious tension between them, and it’s not long before it becomes clear that there is something more going on.

 

The romantic flirtations in this show veer towards the light and childish side, and the main emotion on the show is petty jealousy. Ben and Jim are both possessive and in different ways, approaching their feelings with little maturity. Even the supporting cast finds themselves tangled in petty dramas with inflated emotions. Everything feels trivial, almost incidental, like stepping stones in the grand scheme of bringing these two pretty boys together.

I found the show too manicured, and the pandering towards BL fans too obvious for my tastes. The show relies on its audience having an existing fondness for BL content, and had less to offer a newer viewer like myself. I did, however, very much enjoy Kat Galang’s playful take on Flo, Ben’s eccentric best friend and influencer. The supporting cast occasionally appear despite lockdown because they have quarantine passes from their jobs (nurse, delivery boy), or are family/lovers.

Ben and Jim have their moments, but I found their shared baggage aggravating, and I wanted the bandage torn off so they could move on to other options. Please, Ben, just hook up with the flirty cute delivery boy who is pining for you, and let Jim figure his bullshit out.

One random episode (S1E4), Ben X Jim, began with a quote: “Ang bawat isa na nilikha at pantay-pantay” (each of us is created equal). The next scene opens with Ben, deep in his manic pixie dreamgay thoughts, jealously mixing cake batter while spying on Jim and his girlfriend. In some ways, the social justice disconnect persisted through the show. 

I was going to write off this series after completing Season 1, but I’m glad I stuck around, because Ben X Jim has a glow-up in Season 2!

In S2, we see that Jim has come to terms with his sexuality, and is trying to find his feet in his new independent life. Relationships are more complex, political views on “wokeness” are discussed, and there is even more eye candy to go about this time (it is still a BL show, don’t worry). Vance Larena is also a welcome addition to the cast, keeping things interesting with his broody portrayal as Jim’s antagonistic boss and Ben’s new love rival.

While “wokeness” is a passing subject in S1, S2 incorporates much broader queer issues — it features LGBT activists, trans characters as regular people, and positive messages on gender confirmation surgery. Between Oh, Mando! and this show, I am starting to suspect BL content from the Philippines tends to incorporate broader queer and social justice issues, and I am all for it.

Ben X Jim is available on Netflix.

If you don’t have Netflix, check out Gaya Sa Pelikula on YouTube. 

 

Lovely Writer

My first Thai BL series knocked it out of the park. This series goes for a meta approach, where a BL author gets tangled in his own love story during the TV series adaptation of his hit novel.

Gene, a bashful and grumpy author, finds himself living with the handsome male lead of his show, Nubsib. The actor requests to rehearse his character’s intimate scenes with the man who understands his character best — the author.

Having the fantasy man of your texts come to life in your apartment is pants-exploding stuff, and writer Gene finds himself particularly inspired by events to overcome his writer’s block in telling his next BL story. Nubsib, through his youthful and masculine charm, slowly coaxes out the warmer side of Gene.  

 

Complicating everything is Aey, a manipulative pretty boy, who has set his eyes on his co-star Nubsib. Nubsib can detect a snake, which complicates their on-screen performances of passion for the camera. Gene certainly does not enjoy seeing Nubsib bring his ideas to life with Aey.

The show also subtly addresses some BL tropes. Sexual violence can be romanticised in BL, but Lovely Writer draws a clear line of protest against it. Nubsib and Gene frequently challenge sexual aggression within their work in BL, and push back against demands to comply with these expectations. They are also more mindful of consent, even in the most tempting of personal interactions. In addition, their colleague Tum is an effeminate yet heterosexual man, contradicting assumptions about his sexuality that arise easily in the entertainment industry.

As entertainment goes, there is an ease to everything about this show; the pacing feels natural and unrushed, the actors are all well-casted and easy on the eyes, and the dialogue moves the story along in an interesting way while complemented by an effective use of sound design and soundtrack.

Although I preferred the vibe in Oh, Mando, I found Lovely Writer to be the more polished soap opera in its execution. Unlike Filipino TV shows which run for about 30-45 mins per episode, I found that Thai dramas have more episodes per season, and run close to an hour per episode. In Lovely Writer’s case, the show uses this advantage to pull a viewer in over time.

The series Lovely Writer is available on YouTube.

If you’re interested in watching a documentary on Thai BL film industry people, check out this documentary from GagaOOLala9Based in Taiwan, GagaOOLala is on a mission to bring licensed queer premium content to your screen. They have a selection of titles available for free. I personally found their website quite frustrating, and gave up after some back and forth with their tech support. However, their YouTube channel also offers up a lot of content — more Taiwanese and East Asian, although some SEA content does exist..

 

FILM

The Love of Siam (Rak Haeng Sa-yaam) 

It would have been wrong to write about SEA BL and not watch this seminal film from 2007, written and directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul. Although the creator does not describe it as a BL film (or even a gay film), there are certainly all the elements within this family drama of a teenage boy romance that allows it to fit the genre.

We have so much queer content at our fingertips these days, 2007 seems like a lifetime ago. In those days, any film depicting queerness could be reasonably expected to do the work of representing a whole minority community with its mere existence. So, whether or not the filmmaker distinguishes it as BL, it was seen as such in its time.

In The Love of Siam, two boys discover their feelings for each other, while a languishing father delves into alcoholism due to his inability to deal with his emotions. In keeping with the tender, achy vibes of this film, the boys never experience togetherness in a joyful way.

This film, it’s so beautiful. There are the long lingering shots of familiar objects to set the scene — thankfully nothing that matches the stamina required to watch a Tsai Ming Liang-inspired film. The pace of this film is nearly monotonous, and as such,  it relies on your ability to maintain an interest in its unfolding. It’s a great film in many ways, but boy, did I have to muscle through the ADHD to see it through.

This version of the film is, god bless, rich in detail and reluctant to let go of any single scene. I can only assume there was already much carnage left on the editing floor, that everything else that survived made it to this final director’s cut.

[Spoilers ahead]

The Love of Siam comes close to fantasy fulfilment. One boy finds acceptance for his sexuality from his mother. He breaks up with his girlfriend, and runs to the other boy. It is a tender moment, ripe for a happy ending. Then he follows up with “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” It feels like the director is working through some messed up childhood trauma, and us viewers are just the casualties.

Despite my tone, I enjoyed the movie very much. I have just been spoiled by hours of easy soap opera entertainment, and the unhappy ending here left a bitter taste in my mouth that I found quite unnecessary. This is still one of the best things I’ve watched all year. 

Watch it online here.

 

SHORTS

Tự Tâm, Canh Ba and Nước Chảy Hoa Trôi

I was SINCERELY entirely NOT READY for how EXTRA this music video by singer and music producer Nguyễn Trần Trung Quân would be. Vietnam is serving the glammest BL visuals I have ever seen — there’s black magic, flowy robes, and anaemic beautiful men discovering their passion for each other. The aesthetics certainly make an impression, as does the excess. It’s giving me Interview With the Vampire vibes, but with Asian robes and swordplay.

The music video, Tự Tâm, is part of a much larger project, with a sequel music video (Canh Ba), a full short film (Nước Chảy Hoa Trôi or Reborn), and numerous behind the scenes content.

 

I first watched the dramatic narrative music video, before making my way to the sequel music video, and ensuing short film. From the comments (and view count), there certainly is a deep thirst online for this to become a full web series. I can see something like this having mainstream regional appeal, if it finds the right audience.

I did find the content adjacent to the short film (music videos, BTS shoots) more interesting than the film itself. It almost feels like I am the swine, and the final product the pearls cast before me. What can I say, the music videos held my attention but the short film could not — I watched the latter thrice and still could not say what it is about.

However, I do remain impressed by the dedication, and how confidently the production committed to the aesthetics and glam for this BL production.

Watch the music video here; the sequel music video here; and the short film here.

 

Summerdaze

This Singaporean BL short film resembles an animated scrapbook of a romantic getaway.  Every scene looks suitably picturesque and softly lit, like a gay couple hired a filmographer to follow them on their honeymoon. There are bare hints of a story: two boys bonding over a gorgeous trip, a failed attempt at a kiss, the gradual acceptance of romance in one beautiful summer.

There is a powerful sense of wish fulfilment here. The BL tropes are so powerful, we can sufficiently fill in the blanks and decide a full version exists out there that we want to see. Others saw this potential — fundraising for a whole web series (a first for Singapore BL) has begun! Summerdaze:The Series has raised MYR197,858 (or S$64,271) so far — not a large share of the production cost, but the series is going ahead anyway regardless of fan funding.

The fundraiser promises ‘The story you knew just got more complicated’ which is a generous stretch in the early part of the sentence. Since the original short film was thin on storyline, I don’t know if the expanded version is what the audiences had in mind when they asked for more. But I don’t think anyone really objects to it.

The trailer does look great. More (much, much more) dimension has been added to the narrative. The romantic leads in the short film are reimagined as actors playing on-screen lovers in the series. Now we have a popular actor driven by a scandal to redeem himself in a BL film, matched by an aspiring newbie with a better personality.

I think Singapore’s first BL series shows a lot of promise. I do note a sense that the show is leaning hard on the only visibly brown actor, Aiman Haikal, to represent the diversity of fabulous queers and other ethnicities, but it might be too early to tell.

 

The fundraiser explicitly states that the Singaporean government and media industry are not supportive of LGBT themes in shows, and obtaining sponsorship has been near impossible. Turning to the internet may actually be the answer — for Singapore, and the rest of us in SEA without a thriving BL film industry. It can be a space of less regulation, and access to a larger audience. For now, these are assumptions, and the Singaporeans seem best placed to test them out now.

Summerdaze carries weight on its shoulders — can a homegrown BL series take off? Is there enough popular support within the country and beyond, to see more of such local content in the near future? Are we ready? I think we are, and I hope to see Summerdaze pioneer even more fully-funded Boys’ Love entertainment within Singapore.

Watch the short film here.


SEE WHAT SEE is ArtsEquator’s regular round-up of interesting TV, film and web content made by regional makers or are about Southeast Asia.

Lainie Yeoh is a queer and nerdy strategic communications specialist in Southeast Asia. She has a happy newsletter over at Five Stars.

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