MANILA — Through most of Tony Labrusca and JC Alcantara's back and forth about being paired in "Hello, Stranger," their co-stars couldn't help but visibly react out of — in their words — "kilig."
Gillian Vicencio and Vivoree Esclito, in particular, could be heard giggling as the leading men exchanged first impressions during a virtual conference on Monday, ahead of the digital series' June 24 premiere.
They're spearheading the #XavMi fan group, they joked, referring to the "ship" or pairing of Labrusca and Alcantara's respective characters, Xavier and Mico.
In the lockdown-set "Hello, Stranger," the two students are forced to work together virtually, after being assigned in the same group by their teacher. Romance blooms, as boys' love (BL) stories go.
The "kilig," for both Vicencio and Esclito, stems from what they've seen so far of the story. (Inside jokes included the mention of milk tea, and Mico being told he's top — of the class.)
Vicencio compared #XavMi to high-school infatuation, saying, "Parang bago lahat 'yung feelings, ganoon 'yung kilig."
"I see two people falling in love," Esclito said. "Kinikilig ako beyond their sexual preference. I don't care how you define yourself. Seeing two people fall in love, naiinggit ako. Nagri-resonate sa akin."
Director Petersen Vargas and writer Patrick Valencia are hoping "Hello, Stranger" will resonate similarly to a wider audience, both in terms of "kilig" and recognition of love regardless of gender.
In essence, Vargas pointed out, "Hello, Stranger" is a romantic comedy — arguably the foremost genre in mainstream cinema. It just happens to involve two young men.
While local cinema has had no shortage of LGBT stories, only a handful are similar to romcom in depiction. That tide changed, however, with the far-reaching popularity of the Thai series "2gether," even among Filipinos.
Thailand is credited with popularizing the so-called BL genre, which generally presents gay love stories as light viewing. In the Philippines, that has been more of an exception than a norm.
That "2gether" consistently topped local Twitter trends during its run was a signal for Black Sheep, and numerous other production outfits, that perhaps, Filipinos are finally ready for a "mainstream" treatment of gay romance.
"Naisip namin ni Petersen na why not gumawa tayo ng sariling atin, na kilig, na light, na 'yung issues nila hindi ganoon ka-life and death. You're just watching two people fall in love," Valencia said.
Surrounding Xavier and Mico in "Hello, Stranger" are friends portrayed by Vicencio and Esclito, as well as Miguel Almendras and Patrick Quiroz.
Complementing the #XavMi romance, Vargas said, is the "barkada" who becomes "a vehicle for Mico to accept himself."
"Kasi, 'di ba, before, [the conflict is] will they accept him or not? This show also wants to normalize it, e. It's not a problem. We're not making problems out of someone's love preference, or someone's inclination to love," the director said.
"This is a show where everyone supports how each other loves. Ganoon siya kasimple. At this time when we're alone, who do we have but also our friends? These friends are the ones who can push us to accept the love that we think we deserve."
'LOVE IS FOR FREE'
Labrusca and Alcantara are hopeful that "Hello, Stranger" can be that "barkada," too, for any young person conflicted with their gender or sexual preference, once the series is out in full.
"A huge part of why people are so insecure to not just reveal their sexuality, but be who they are, whether they are are outgoing or quirky or loud or they're into men or women, I think is because of the environment we create for people who are struggling with their identity," Labrusca said.
"I think a big part of it is us making way and helping create a safer environment for those people. And you know what, it's all in the right time. I think this show sends a message that love is love, and you can just be whoever you want to be. You don't even have to put a label on it. Love is for free. You can love whoever you want. It doesn't have to be a big deal," he said.
Alcantara, who has close ties with an aunt in a same-sex relationship, agreed with his onscreen partner.
Sharing his message for any individual who may be scared to live openly with their sexuality, Alcantara said: "As long as wala kang tinatapakang tao, nagpapasaya ka ng tao, at nagmamahal ka nang totoo, pakita mo sa kanila na ganoon ka talaga. Maging proud ka sarili mo. Sana makatulong ang BL series na 'to na hindi na sila matakot one day."