Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — What a year for the gays, huh?
There are days when I think about whether the 2020 Boys' Love boom would have happened if it wasn’t for the community quarantine — or for the shitshow that is 2020 in general. The Boys’ Love genre undeniably provided escape and fantasy; that we can pin our hopes and dreams to these actors — who are much more good looking than we are — to map out the queer experience of love.
But from the baklaan explosion of “2gether: The Series,” there came shows that are much more conscious of queer representation. Queer love is a spectrum, and to tell it in one formula would just be following the usual straight rom-com way. Though there is more to be desired (particularly on the trans experience), showrunners are beginning to cast queer actors, writing stories about femme boys; having lesbians as consultants for a Girls’ Love show; and becoming aware of the nuances needed to tell the complexity of queer stories.
Here, in no particular order (we’ve had enough bardagulan this year), are the Filipino queer shows that stood out in a year when heteronormative media seemed non-essential. — Don Jaucian
Is there a Filiipino BL show as wholesome as this? In some ways, it might be hard to classify “Better Days” as BL — there are no overt expressions of romance and no classifiable love triangles (but pangs of jealousy are present). But “Better Days,” buoyed by the charm of Chesther Chua (Kian) and Benedix Ramos (Aron), is impressive in how it unfurls this intimate connection between two childhood friends who, because of the lockdown, had a chance to reconnect. The upstairs-downstairs drama is never amped up (Aron is a helper in Kian’s family home in the province) and instead, the two help each other up: Kian encourages Aron to take up culinary school, and Aron makes Kian feel loved and whole. Although the resolution may feel short (but it is revealed that a second season is coming soon), it's enough already as it is: Kian and Aron and looking to a future, though grounded in tragedy, as renewed boys who have a colorful queer life ahead of them. — Don Jaucian
Where to watch: YouTube
As someone averse to drama onscreen and in real life, it’s hard to fully empathize with Boys’ Love shows with unnecessarily complicated plots that rely on too many dramatic moments. It’s bordering on “good vibes” lang, I know. But shows that perfectly balance conflicts with the thrill of falling in love really hit the mark for me. Which is why “Boys Lockdown” still remains as one of the strongest BL shows of the year. The only villain here is the tyranny of the quarantine and it’s surprising how the show depicted the possibility of finding romance in a time when we’re all trying to deny ourselves of intimacy. Key (Ali King) and Chen (Alec Kevin) really didn’t have to go through much to find each other — it’s as if everything were orchestrated by fate. The six episodes didn’t leave room to explore some of the larger themes tackled in the show (the oppressive feeling of the lockdown, the government’s slow response to the pandemic, our fragile mental states, etc.) but it all ends in a transgressive act of physical contact, especially in the context of other BL shows that hardly featured a proper kiss. “Tawag ng laman?” Key asks himself a few minutes before this damn love affair gets consummated. We were cheering them on anyway. “Boys Lockdown” is fluffy, funny, and fascinating. It’s like a whole box of chocolates you know you’ll finish in one go — no regrets though. Plus, the cinematography is gorgeous, it makes queer love look and feel like a Studio Ghibli film. — DJ
Where to watch: YouTube
“Chasing Sunsets” was daring in its release, in two respects: first, it was competing at the time of Philippine BL’s upward trajectory; and second, it chose to tackle mental health instead of opting for a lighthearted romantic comedy.
“Chasing Sunsets” uses the narrative device of blurring the lines — between dream and reality; between hallucinations and history — to portray the story of Lara (Aura Dominique) and her struggles with herself. To anyone who has ever struggled with their mental health, this series may be difficult to watch. Its raw portrayal of the ugly, twisted universe of a person at odds with her own mind, does not seek to romanticize these struggles; but instead reminds its watchers of its seriousness. It would seem, from the story’s aims, that the sapphic relationship is a mere afterthought. But it is precisely the relationship which served as a path to hope, and with hope and liberation.
The show is not without its own faults, but those are all to be expected from a small production. But what the series lacks in budget, it makes up for in sincerity and heart. — Coco Villarin
Where to watch: YouTube
“Gameboys” arrived right smack in the middle of the pandemic, when we were all forced to stay at home and physically disengage from all non-essential activities to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Framed within the confines of social media interaction, we are introduced into the lives of Cairo (Elijah Canlas) and Gavreel (Kokoy De Santos), two gamers whose virtual interaction quickly blossoms into a romance despite being physically apart from each other. As the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for these two brave souls as they come to terms with the harsh realities of young adult queer life: coming out, social media bullying, mental health, and death of a loved one. But there’s more to “Gameboys” than its delightful take on the form. In its deceptively simple way, the acclaimed Pinoy BL series opens up discussions about critical issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community when others simply brush it off for the purpose of escapist entertainment. “Gameboys'' made it possible to redefine the Boys' Love genre in its own game-changing terms, while advocating for LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusivity in a nation that badly needs it. — Ian Urrutia
“Gaya sa Pelikula”
Gaya Sa Pelikula came with a BL-ready pedigree: (1) a writer-creator, Juan Miguel Severo, who rose to fame as the unofficial spokesperson for the lovesick; (2) JP Habac, the director of “I’m Drunk, I Love You,” which is a love story that’s “not a love story;” (3) a major outfit, Globe Studios, producing it; and (4) two fresh faces who have the looks and chemistry minus the showbiz baggage. Ian Pangilinan and Paolo Pangilinan (no relation) share not just a family name; they also possess the triple-threat combo of looks, charm, and talent. The Pangpangs bring to life the story of Vlad and Karl, two neighbors who meet-cute (“Hi, ney-bhur”) over sembreak and discover that loving someone means loving yourself too. “Gaya sa Pelikula” declares its LGBTQ+ agenda from the get-go, and it challenges the viewers in more ways than one. At times, the “taking back our story” threatens to muddle the narrative, which makes “Gaya sa Pelikula” occasionally feeling more like an essay. Still, you gotta give the series props for courageously wearing its woke heart on its sleeve. If many Pinoy online series are pushing the limits and redefining the BL genre, then “Gaya sa Pelikula” is the proud cheerleader of the protest march. — Joel McVie
Where to watch: YouTube and Netflix this Jan 7.
There are two wonderful love stories in “Hello Stranger.” The first is with nerd Mico (JC Alcantara) and jock Xavier (Tony Labrusca) who clash over quiz night but end up as project partners. The other is between Mico and his nerdy barkada, the Young Padawans (Miguel Almendras, Vivoree Esclito, and Patrick Quiroz). Alcantara is a standout here; his performance as Mico resonates with truth, sincerity, vulnerability, and humor, while Labrusca, bless his smile, is effortlessly charming; when his Xavier stares into the camera, he practically dares viewers to fall in love with him. The other Young Padawans distinguish themselves despite their limited screen time; their ensemble work makes Mico’s coming out scene a highlight. “Hello Stranger” debuted just a month after “Gameboys,” but while both series have many similarities, they are opposite in tone. “Gameboys” is painfully real and intense; “Hello Stranger” has no deaths, no extreme drama, and no safety protocols (!) in the last scene. (What? No kiss, too?) By keeping things understated and wistful, director Petersen Vargas crafts a screen life BL series that’s so chill, it’s (apologies to Petersen) too cool to be forgotten. — JM
“My Extraordinary” feels like a throwback to the early BL era. Two high school students are drawn to one another — the popular, talented Ken (Enzo Santiago) and the shy, sensitive scholar Shake (Darwin Yu). This vexes Sandee (Karissa Toliongco), Ken’s childhood bestie who secretly pines for him. It doesn’t help that Ken’s strict mom is homophobic. Feelings are unrequited, secrets are squealed, and lovers are denied — longtime fans of BLs have seen these before. And many of them find the series’ lessons outdated: “homophobia kills” and “homosexuals are happy only in heaven.” But not everything about the series is old-school. Its casting eschews the picture-perfect Ken dolls that often populate BLs. The relatively fresh faces of Enzo Santiago and Darwin Yu work to their advantage, grounding the series with refreshing realism. The original songs by award-winning composer Vincent de Jesus (who also wrote the script) bring heartfelt poignancy to the episodes. “My Extraordinary'' is the only BL series produced during the pandemic that aired on free-to-air television — a first in the country. So how does one pitch a BL series to a mainstream audience? Showing the sheer ordinariness of two boys falling in love may well be the show’s subversive contribution to the community. — JM
“My Troll Lover”
In a year saturated by web series that put premium on masculine-looking leads as well as the return of Cris Pablo-inspired narratives that employed provocative, guerilla-style filmmaking to the series format, “My Troll Lover” provided an impassioned argument of why proper representation and visibility of other folks from the LGBTQ+ spectrum, matters.
“Mamu: And A Mother Too” filmmaker and screenwriter Rod Singh took the risk of producing a scripted show that didn’t necessarily align with the current toast of the studios. In “My Troll Lover,” the star of its universe is a genderqueer character named Badette, a 25-year-old online seller whose journey towards finding love and happiness during the time of pandemic is well-documented in a series of social media conversations, Instagram stories, video calls, and text messages. With its unapologetically lo-fi aesthetic and light-hearted rom-com formula, Singh calls the shots in creating a world that fosters a great sense of affirmation for trans women, effeminate gays, and genderqueers. “My Troll Lover” sees people like Badette for what they truly are: not tied to a specific narrative convention and deserving of love and respect. — IU
Where to watch: Facebook
Equal parts absurd, charming, and chaotic, “Oh Mando,” feels like many things at once. It’s a story of a college boy (Kokoy De Santos) who has yet to realize he’s gay. So, as if to deny his budding sexuality, he finally agrees to be Krisha’s (Barbie Imperial) boyfriend. At the same time, he meets Barry (Alexander Diaz), who is literally the man of his dreams but, in a sick twist of fate, also turns out to be Krisha’s brother.
“Oh, Mando” is one of those queer shows where almost everyone is queer. Barry is bisexual, Mando’s mom is a lesbian who has a life partner, his best friend (the excellent Renzie Aguilar who should get more roles, honestly) is a flaming baklita; and their drama teacher, Ms. Siwa (Joel Saracho) is a trans woman. The intersection of these storylines, and how they all distill into how Mando accepts his sexuality, makes the show unique and an interesting watch. I only wish the show had more episodes to fully tackle these issues more. — F. Garcia
Where to watch: iWantTFC
“Pearl Next Door”
If you’ve followed sapphic media long enough, you’ll find a few exploratory films with hard-hitting issues or personal existential crises dominating the narrative through blue or sepia-toned screens. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course: there is a place for that kind of storytelling. It’s just that sometimes, sapphic women need kilig, too.
So when “Pearl Next Door” described itself as “Pearl’s search for love,” it was refreshing. Set in the “Gameboys” universe, “Pearl Next Door” is a colorful, unapologetic exploration of a sapphic woman (Adrianna So) as she navigates her identity and the relationships around her in a time of isolation. It’s certainly a love story, yet it doesn’t relish in shallow romantic tropes. Instead, it chose to sensitively portray the struggles of women interested in women, culminating in a message that is similar, though in many ways divergent, from “Gameboys”: that looking for love, and finding it, is such a universal experience, yet unique in the many ways it manifests.
Though the show is not a one-size-fits-all portrayal of the sapphic experience, it’s still one of the best manifestos for modern-day queer Pinays that they’re here, their love is not always tragic, and their stories deserve to be told. — CV
Where to watch: YouTube
“Quaranthings: The Series”
“Quaranthings: The Series” also explores the complexities of male-to-male relationship while in isolation. But instead of watching the entire narrative unfold from the POV of smartphones and computer screens, the Ride or Die-produced series takes place within the confined spaces of an apartment, where the audience gets to witness two boys with contrasting socio-economic backgrounds, develop feelings for each other and confront social expectations shaped by traditions, Christian upbringing, and patriarchal values.
Unlike in “Gameboys” where the pandemic serves its purpose as an invisible villain that magnifies the underlying disparities of a functioning society and its dehumanizing effect on the two leads, “Quaranthings” treats the pandemic as a convenient setup for the sheltered but openly gay Judah (Kyo Quijano) and the closeted, working class lad Rocky (Royce Cabrera) to find home in each other’s arms, even as the blooming relationship is tested by their conflicting views on sexuality, politics, and personal convictions. While the writing doesn’t feel episodic enough to sustain the promise of its first half, Quaranthings is commendable in subverting the conventions of the BL genre with its insightful coming-of-age slant that puts Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) at the center of its agenda, and not merely touching on its premise just to prove a point. — IU
Where to watch: YouTube