Directed by Ivan Andrew Payawal
Starring Elijah Canlas, Kokoy de Santos
When I was working in advertising, there was a loosely held dictum which stated that it took Western cultural movements around two decades or so to reach Philippine shores. We’re not referring to facile pop cultural trends in music or movies or fashion here; we’re talking about adapting deeper, seismic shifts like evolving attitudes towards sex and sexuality, relationships, identity.
So I take it as a kind of consolation that only a little over two years from the release of Love, Simon—the only high-profile Hollywood release I could think of that deals with the congruent subject matter of boy-boy romance in a non-feverish, John Hughes-ian way—we finally have the first high-profile, locally produced Boy Love romance, Gameboys, produced by The IdeaFirst Company and directed by Ivan Andrew Payawal. And it’s streaming on YouTube, possibly one of the most accessible platforms ever invented!
A little over two years is fast for alternative subject matter, right? Well…not if you want a true 1:1 correlation. And the true yardstick for our speed of adaptation would have to be the Japanese literary subgenre yaoi, a manga from which the more commercialized label of Boy Love (or BL) spring forth. And yaoi has been around in Japan since at least the early 1990s; that’s almost three decades. Countries like Taiwan and Thailand have been producing Boy Love series for years; even China—a country historically more repressive than us when cracking down on queerness—got to BL first.
I only belabor this point to unpack the jarring sensation with which I watched Gameboys’ first two episodes. (New episodes are released weekly.) In the pilot episode, we watch as gamer Cai (Elijah Canlas) gets beaten in a Twitch-like live-stream by the interloping Gav (Kokoy de Santos). Without any preamble, Gav announces his intention to court Cai—the exact line is “O, liligawan na kita ha.” The rest of the episode has Cai batting away Gav’s advances with an annoyed coquettishness; it’s not that he isn’t interested, he’s playing hard-to-get. And of course Gav, with his cherubic curls, killer dimples and trim torso, can see through Cai’s gambit and doubles down on his wooing.
Both Canlas and de Santos have played gay-adjacent roles before—Canlas in Jun Lana’s Kalel, 15 and de Santos in Eduardo Roy, Jr.’s Fuccbois. And it is to their credit that they produce such palpable chemistry even when they have to act all alone in their chat boxes, in the quarantine-mandated and increasingly tiresome narrative device of video chats. Perhaps it’s lucky that Gameboys was conceived and shot during the COVID lockdown; it provides a handy explanation for the series’ insular feel, the sensation that both leads are free to explore and pursue this budding relationship because they are essentially cut off from the rest of the world.
Yaoi is essentially marketed towards girls and fellow queers, which explains why Gameboys, like its BL peers all over the region, sands off anything pointed or jagged in its protagonists’ interactions that could snag on messy emotion or actual real-world issues. It goes straight for the kilig—which is fine, if these two boys bantering and eventually getting it on were the only items on the agenda.
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But problems start to rise in the second episode, when hints of Cai’s family turmoil start to appear. Cai’s father is suffering from the ravages of COVID, and Cai has to deal with a domineering older brother who doesn’t have time for his shenanigans. Of course we’ll need to see where Payawal and writer Ash Malanum plan to take this subplot in future episodes, but I have reservations in this case about using the rom-com formula of family relationships as a sounding board for the central romance. It lets too much of the real world in. And in the real world—where the Church is still trying to drive same-sex relationships back into the closet, where even an educated Filipino can’t tell the difference between transgender and transvestite—Gav couldn’t possibly be so cavalier about his intentions. Even in a promotional video for upcoming Filipino BL productions, some YouTube commenters are already expressing a wish that local versions of yaoi not be so sexual.
Perhaps Gameboys’ creatives should have scoured YouTube during the development phase. If they did, they would have found a video from a year ago where their leading man Kokoy de Santos embarked on a “jowa” challenge for fellow actor Jomari Angeles’ vlog—basically, a dare to act like boyfriends on a trip shopping for clothes. Even back then, de Santos displayed an admirably game attitude to the whole thing, but it is Angeles’ simmering unease that is more telling. BL stories are famously insouciant about real-life homosexual concerns, but if Gameboys had given just a slight nod to Angeles’ incipient panic—found an ingenuous way to situate its genre stipulations within a truly Filipino context—I might have found it a truly seismic adaptation.
New episodes of Gameboys are uploaded weekly on YouTube
Photos from The IdeaFirst Company on YouTube