TELEVISION

Thai actors Bright and Win turn Philippine media into a BL nation

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"2gether: The Series" stars Bright Vachirawit (left) and Win Metawin's Global Fan Meet, their very first as a B.L. “couple,” was held online, available to a global audience. Photo courtesy of GLOBE TELECOM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The instant I got the invite to join ABS-CBN’s media conference for Thai actors Bright Vachiwarit Chiva-aree and Win Metawin Opas-iamkajorn, stars of the popular show “2gether: The Series,” I already knew the question I wanted to ask: “Do you think the quarantine that forced people to stay at home helped turn your show into a massive hit, at least in the Philippines?”

If you haven’t been paying attention to the internet the past couple of months, “2gether: The Series” is a show that tells the story of Sarawat and Tine (played by Bright and Win, respectively), two college students who pretend to be in a fake relationship, until they develop real feelings for each other. An adaptation of a popular online novel from Thailand, the show is part of a genre called Boys Love, a kind of fictionalized media that features homoerotic relationships between men that usually caters to women. Upon its premiere in February, it became a hit not just in Thailand but also in other Asian countries, turning Bright and Win into regional stars. In the Philippines, it was streamed online weekly on Youtube; it boomed in popularity online beyond the local BL fan base around the same time the quarantine was imposed.

Fans of Thai actors may reject the idea that the quarantine (and, in effect, the pandemic) is a factor in the show’s popularity, because it implies the show wouldn’t be a hit if people weren’t stuck at home. But Bright and Win have acknowledged in past occasions that “2gether” was shown during unusual times.

For instance, during an online show appearance on the GMM Youtube channel earlier this month, fellow Thai actor Tay Tawan asked Bright what he felt when “2gether” reached viewers in countries previous shows of the network were not able to penetrate before.

“It’s a worldwide trending [in countries] we haven’t reached out yet like in Europe or America. How was it?” Tay asked.

Bright, perhaps humbly trying to downplay the success of the show in front of his fellow actors, said people were just “finding something to watch” because they had free time. (To which another host, Arm Weerayut, interjected: “Hey, no! It’s good!”)

Globe Telecom promoted the BrightWin Global Fan Meet and even gave 200 lucky fans free tickets to the online show. Photo from GLOBE TELECOM

During their online fan meet last June 20 on VLive, Bright, after singing one of the songs from "2gether," said: “This is an unusual time. This song is my happiness. It's many people's happiness.”

Bright and Win’s Global Fan Meet, their very first as a BL “couple,” was held online, available to a global audience (Globe Telecom promoted the BrightWin Global Fan Meet and even gave 200 lucky fans free tickets to the online show). Fan meets with BL stars are important to the fandom; overseas fan meets are indications that certain shows and actors have penetrated international territories.

Actors from BL shows such as “TharnType: The Series,” and “Until We Meet Again,” were scheduled to have fan meets in the Philippines this year, but were cancelled or postponed because of travel restrictions due to COVID-19. Other BL shows such as “Love by Chance” and “SOTUS S” already had fan meets in 2019. Nonetheless, it’s a sign that BL has an audience in the country.

Of course, during their Philippine mediacon (organized by ABS-CBN to promote the Filipino dub version of “2gether: The Series” on its online streaming service iWant), Bright and Win couldn’t say for sure if the “unusual time” was one of the factors for the success of "2gether: The Series." But they seem to be aware of the show’s appeal.

“I think because it is easy to watch," Bright said. "Everyone who is watching the series will be happy."

Win added, “And also the message of the show… People can easily understand the show.”

“Honestly, we are so surprised we have so many overseas fans,” Bright said about the show’s massive fan base in the Philippines, to which Win followed with: “Because at first we didn’t expect we’ll have overseas fans… We feel very thankful to the fans who are supporting us.”

As for the idea that the quarantine may have helped turn “2gether” into a hit, Bright said: “We were lucky that everyone is staying at home.”

“We were happy to help you guys get through this situation,” he added.

Perhaps sensing the somber tone of the question and answer (Bright and Win answered in English, without an interpreter, though the questions were screened and pre-selected by ABS-CBN and GMMTV, the Thai production company behind the show), the media conference’s host MJ Felipe said, in a tone that’s reminiscent of a giddy fan club president: “With or without the pandemic, we will still watch '2gether'! We love '2gether'!”

That’s true, of course. People will watch "2gether: The Series," quarantine or no quarantine. After all, other BL shows from last year such as “Tharntype: The Series” and GMMTV’s “Dark Blue Kiss,” had a sizable local audience, based on fan online conversations.

The show is popular for a reason. As Bright and Win said, “2gether” is easy to watch with a universal message. Which is to say: it is popular not just because of the quarantine.

But Felipe’s exclamation dismisses the fact that there are many interesting elements about the show’s popularity that aren't about the show itself.

“Honestly, we are so surprised we have so many overseas fans,” Bright said about the show’s massive fan base in the Philippines. Screenshot from GMMTV/YOUTUBE

A mad rush for BL

It’s also dismissive of the fact that, thanks to the circumstances around its airing and the effect it has had on Philippine media so far, “2gether” has become a unique pop cultural product. For one, "2gether" has started a Boys Love fever in Philippine media.

There seems to be a mad rush among local outfits to produce their own BL shows. Currently, there are several local BL series (such as “Hello, Stranger” and “Gameboys," produced by film companies Black Sheep and The Ideafirst Company respectively) and many more are in production (to be produced by iWant and Globe Studios, and other smaller online media outfits).

These shows are obviously inspired by the local success of “2gether.” For one, in the case of “Hello, Stranger” and “Gameboys,” the immediacy of these local productions seems like a direct response to its popularity. “Gameboys” even premiered exactly a week after “2gether” ended its run, as if a calculated move to take over the void the Thai show has left among local audiences.

The IdeaFirst Company considers “Gameboys” a success. As of this writing, its five episodes have a total of over 2.5 million views. On the other hand, the first episode of “Hello, Stranger” currently has over 800,000 views on YouTube and over 350,000 views on Facebook, although it also airs on the ABS-CBN cable channel Cinema One and on its streaming platform iWant.

While the popularity of “2gether” may have produced the same influence without the quarantine, it cannot be denied that the quarantine prompted these outfits to produce these Boys Love shows. Or, at least, to create them at its current form — cost-efficient to make, readily available online, and produced while circumventing the filming restrictions set by the government due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both “Gameboys” and “Hello, Stranger” are set during the quarantine, both filmed remotely.

More importantly, these two local shows (and, undoubtedly, many of the BL shows that will come after it) are made in the mold of “2gether” — light, easy to watch, with a universal message.

During their online fan meet last June 20 on VLive, Bright, after singing one of the songs from "2gether," said: “This is an unusual time. This song is my happiness. It's many people's happiness.” Photo from GLOBE TELECOM

This is, perhaps, by design; these shows were made to serve the audience “2gether” has tapped locally. But it has also caused the local attempts to lose the subversive edge of the genre.

“A good question to ask is: why are they doing it?” says Louie Jon Sanchez, a poet and professor at the Ateneo de Manila University who has written extensively about Filipino soap operas and pop culture.

“BL is conventionally a women’s genre. And that is now lost on many of us, naging LGBT. Not that it’s bad. But, it has been watered down, co-opted, but not very critically. [BL is] a very subversive genre. It is framed in the perspective of women. Translation seems to have effaced that frame,” he adds.

In short: “Walang pinag-iba sa KathNiel at LizQuen. Ginawa lang queer.”

Again, not that this is bad. But local BL shows, because they are made with economic considerations in mind, are made for a broader audience. The result is a form that is less radical because it removes the key convention of the genre: the female gaze.

“Ang tanong, nakakapagsulong ba siya ng emancipation sa LGBT?" asks Sanchez. "Puwede, kasi it makes them visible in pop culture. Pero are LGBTs made visible, sensible enough? That’s the question. It needs to be nuanced.”

Trends are now dictated by fans, not institutions; it’s hard to imagine a mainstream network like ABS-CBN (before the shutdown) or GMA-7 airing a BL show without the clamor of the fans. Screenshot from GMMTV/YOUTUBE

A different metric

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the popularity of “2gether” and the Boys Love genre right now is what it says about local pop culture.

It illustrates how there are now several ways to determine what is considered a hit in Philippine context. Several years ago, there was one basis of being a hit: ratings. This is why we know, for instance, why the ‘90s Mexican soap opera “Marimar” is a huge hit, even if you disregard how its popularity changed how T.V. networks produce their soap operas and when they air it.

Philippine media acknowledged “2gether” is a hit without this metric. In place of ratings, Sanchez says, are other “registers of interest and patronage.” In the case of “2gether”, it is measured via social media noise, by critical appeal.

This makes “2gether” unique in the sense that it’s acknowledged to be a hit, yet even with its popularity you couldn’t consider the Boys Love genre to be part of the local “mainstream.” Note, for instance, how all local BL shows are streamed online. ABS-CBN streams “2gether” via iWant and airs it on its cable network Kapamilya Channel.. But a large part of the BL “fever” is happening only to a specific segment of the market, Sanchez said, particularly those with access to streaming platforms.

“So yung ‘fever,’ it should be seen as a segmented ‘fever; more than a widespread interest and patronage," explains Sanchez. "It would be interesting to ask who compose this segment — perhaps, Asianovela fans (in general), BL lovers (to begin with), and maybe LGBTQ."

“BL still has very limited access and patronage. In general, lakorn (Thai drama) is still emerging in the local market, still in the period of introduction,” he adds.

It’s indicative of how pop culture conversations and trends are shifting. A show doesn’t have to be aired on free T.V. anymore to become a hit, to shift trends, to instigate change in local pop culture. The change that “2gether” has started is significant, as it has seemingly encouraged media institutions to produce stories that are LGBTQ-themed — a topic that isn’t always embraced by media institutions.

Asked if he thinks the BL fever will last after the quarantine, Sanchez says: “Mahirap siyang sagutin lalo’t masyadong fluid ang behavior, interest, at panlasa ng audience. Marami kang considerations these days.”

“Nagbago na ang T.V. eh, after ng ABS-CBN shutdown,” he adds.

The fact that Bright and Win are getting media attention is indicative of the power of fans. Trends are now dictated by fans, not institutions. Screenshot from GMMTV/YOUTUBE

The transformation of T.V. culture

The effect of ABS-CBN’s shutdown in T.V. culture could be felt immediately. With ABS-CBN’s free T.V. channel out of commission (the network airs many of its news programs, variety shows, and soap operas on its many cable and digital channels), the culture is less vibrant.

“[The shutdown] is killing the culture,” Sanchez says. “It is the culture’s pandemic.”

It seems it’s not a coincidence that ABS-CBN acquired the streaming rights of “2gether” when it shut down. It was also announced earlier this month that ABS-CBN has entered a partnership with Thai T.V. GMM. According to a release, “Still 2gether,” the sequel to “2gether: The Series,” will also air in the Philippines via the Kapamilya Channel and iWant.

Dreamscape Entertainment, the production unit responsible for acquiring the airing rights of “2gether,” declined to be interviewed for this article.

In Sanchez's opinion, the shutdown will prompt ABS-CBN to transform, to cultivate new platforms.

"So, I think, mamamatay ang free T.V.; ABS-CBN is a survivor," he says. "Ang akala ng gobyerno, matutulungan silang ma-legitimate with free T.V. Pero ang T.V. sa Pinas, medyo huling-huli na."

Cultivating the Boys Love genre — outside its free T.V. mainstream box — via its acquisition of “2gether: The Series” and its embrace of Bright and Win's stardom can be seen as the network's way of surviving in a post-ABS-CBN shutdown world.

According to a release, “Still 2gether,” the sequel to “2gether: The Series,” will also air in the Philippines via the Kapamilya Channel and iWant. Screenshot from GMMTV/YOUTUBE

The power of the fans

This could be attributed to the power of fans in the country. Bright and Win has turned Philippine media into a nation that’s enamored with the Boys Love genre.

At this point, it’s clear that Bright and Win are stars in the country, with a unique place in the history of local pop culture. It’s interesting to see how Bright and Win can change how local fandoms work, and how we consume content.

The fact that Bright and Win are getting media attention is indicative of the power of fans. Trends are now dictated by fans, not institutions; it’s hard to imagine a mainstream network like ABS-CBN (before the shutdown) or GMA-7 airing a BL show without the clamor of the fans.

With the pandemic, how supporters celebrate their fandom has changed. For instance, Bright and Win’s very first fan meet was held online, available to a global audience. Bright and Win’s first Philippne press conference was held via Zoom, live-streamed on ABS-CBN’s social media platforms.

The ABS-CBN mediacon ended with Bright and Win being asked questions culled online from the fans (again, an indication that even in an event meant for the media, the fans rule).

One of the fans asked them: “What name will you give to us, [the] BrightWin fandom.” The question is huge; fans were expecting the announcement of the BrightWin fandom name during Global Fan Meet.

“First of all, thanks for all of your support," Bright said. “But BrightWin… I think BrightWin is good enough. Let’s just keep it at that. We love that name.”

It’s clear that whatever love the Filipino fans are giving Bright and Win, the two Thai actors are giving back. This is expected, after all. This is media and pop culture in the time of the quarantine.