Thai BL series are gaining newfound appreciation and global fans as they take on tropes that have long troubled the genre, and upped their quality.
KinnPorsche, Bad Buddy and Not Me are among a new wave of series raising the profile of the Thai BL genre
Even as the Hallyu wave shows no signs of slowing down, there's another, nicher cultural import making its presence felt, on shores far from its own.
The Thai BL (Boy's Love) genre has grown beyond its relatively limited origins to become a bonafide soft power force to reckon with. Last month, the spokesperson for Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha said he had lauded the entertainment industry — specifically the BL (also called ‘Y-series’, because of its roots in yaoi media) genre — for bolstering the nation’s soft power. The PM’s office noted that an upsurge in the numbers of Japanese tourists to Thailand was tied to Thai BL fandom. Further, as COVID-19 restrictions on international travel have eased, Thai BL stars are stepping up their overseas fan meets, notably in Japan and South Korea.
Lakorns — Thai TV dramas — draw massive audiences domestically, but their stars may not always enjoy the instant name recognition among international fans as actors fronting BL series. While a dedicated following for BL content has always existed, there’s been a sort of ‘mainstreaming’ of the genre that took place during the pandemic. As viewers across the world sought out more diverse content on streaming platforms, the availability of series like 2gether (a love story centered on two university students) proved to be an ideal gateway into the BL genre for those who hadn’t sought it out before.
(Plus, for a viewer who has already made their way through a fair amount of Korean and Japanese content, Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai media are the next — and natural — pit-stop. As one YouTuber said of their journey, they went from saranghaeyo — Korean for ‘I love you’ — to saraleo — Thai for a**hole.)
In terms of quality, 2gether — and its follow-up Still 2gether — would not count among the genre’s best, but the series was fun, and ‘vanilla’ enough (in the way the 50 Shades books were BDSM-Lite for the uninitiated) to have widespread appeal. Moreover, it had inspired casting in the form of its extremely photogenic leads — Bright Vachirawit and Win Metawin — whose popularity now far exceeds that of most Thai lakorn and movie stars.
For those whose journeys began with 2gether, the genre had a readymade trove of older content to delve into next. This included shows like SOTUS, TharnType, Until We Meet Again, Kiss Me, Love By Chance, Bad Romance/Together With Me, Theory of Love etc, all of which had made their protagonists’ pairings a very successful commercial phenomenon — be it KristSingto, MewGulf, TayNew, PerthSaint, MaxTul or OffGun. (BL pairs take the first names of both actors; the order is determined by who is presumed to be the seme or ‘top’ in the dynamic versus the uke or ‘bottom’.)
And new content was being created at a brisk pace. Two particularly stand-out series in the genre were Bad Buddy and Not Me. Both shows signalled a significant shift in the genre: Not Me (starring OffGun, i.e. Off Jumpol and Gun Atthaphan, and directed by Anucha Bunyawatana) stepped out of the rarefied world that characters of Thai BLs often inhabit and was deft in its indictment of the corruption and classism in the country. Using the potboiler-ish premise of two twins separated in childhood, Not Me was an ace display of how expositions on ‘rule of law’ versus ‘rule by law’, Brutalist architecture and the Code of Hammurabi could be woven into a taut thriller, with an ultimately uplifting message about how social justice might be achieved in a deeply unequal society.
Bad Buddy, on the other hand, had a setting very familiar to the BL genre: a university, where its two protagonists were enrolled in the rival faculties of Architecture and Engineering. Their situation is Romeo and Juliet-esque (or Romeo and Romeo-esque), in that their families, who’ve lived next to each other for all of their lives, have a longstanding animosity. Still, the series managed to subvert virtually every toxic/problematic BL trope (and there are more than a few that have been regurgitated in the genre time and again) and then some, while setting an impossibly high bar for other acts to follow. Under director Aof Noppharnach’s handling, and with GMMTV’s powerhouse GenZ stars Ohm Pawat and Nanon Korapat playing the titular Bad Budd(ies), the series has lent itself to the kind of academic/critical deconstruction that makes classics out of pop culture offerings.
Not all of the BL implosion is worth writing home about of course. For every Not Me and Bad Buddy, there are innumerable shows that are mediocre or obvious cash grabs. A marked exception in this regard is KinnPorsche, whose finale aired on iQiyi this July. Starring Mile Phakphum and Apo Natawin, KinnPorsche revolves around the dealings of a mafia family, and the attraction that springs up between its scion and his bodyguard. Its wholly adult treatment extends not just to the explicit sequences between its lead pair, but is also reflected in the fact that its characters are all actual adults (not high school or university students) with real — if illegal — jobs.
A sign perhaps of how much ground BL has gained can be seen in the uptick in the number of Korean shows that are now being made in the genre. To My Star and To My Star 2, Semantic Error, Where Your Eyes Linger, Cherry Blossoms After Winter, Blueming are among the better known Korean BL titles; however, most of these still tend to have much shorter (as well as fewer) episodes as compared to their KDrama or Thai BL counterparts.
Like Thai series, Korean BLs too have the advantage of a rich vein of source material: the former tend to be drawn from novels that may have begun life as Wattpad uploads, while the latter are often adapted from manhwas and webtoons. This month, theatrical screenings of movie edits of popular BL series Semantic Error and Cherry Magic (Japanese) were held across the country.
Like any (relatively) nascent industry and cultural phenomenon, the Thai BL genre has a lot of growing up to do. For better or worse, it emulates the working of the Korean entertainment industry to some extent — which means actors under any production house have parallel careers as musicians, singers; helm a number of variety shows; vlog and livestream directly to fans; and must engage in a lot of fanservice. This last can sometimes take on quite unpleasant overtones for the actors concerned, especially when they’re found to have (real) relationships outside of their ‘ship/s’. There are many other deep-rooted issues, including the occasional exploitative contract or not-so-secret homophobia, that the industry will need to focus on fixing as its profile grows.
For now though, Thai BLs can take a well-deserved victory lap.
A brief glossary of Thai BL terms —