Finding love in the time of social distancing

Published February 5, 2021, 10:00 AM

by Pao Vergara

This is part of a series reviewing local AV productions highlighting the best of Filipino creativity. For now, we take a look at the internationally awarded and shot-in-the-midst-of-quarantine boy love web series Gameboys

GAMEBOYS Kokoy de Santos as Gavreel and Elijah Canlas as Cairo in the first-ever boys’ love series in the Philippines

I’ll be upfront, as a heterosexual male, I’m not the target market of boys’ love (BL) series. But it’s the 21st century, and anyone can appreciate love manifesting across genders and sexualities. And anyone, throughout the ages, if they’re open-minded enough, can sit down for a good tale.

Upon its release, Gameboys not only garnered tons of views but critical acclaim as well, locally and abroad, being the official selection at film fests and for indie shorts awards in Buenos Aires and Amsterdam, and winning awards in the US and Korea.

A 2020 production of independent studio IdeaFirst, Gameboys is directed by Ivan Andrew Payawal (The Panti Sisters 1 & 2, Ang Pambansang Thirdwheel) and written by Ash Malanum (Kiko Boksingero, Unforgettable), the series stars Elijah Canlas as gamer-and-streamer Cairo Lazaro and Kokoy de Santos as Gavreel Alarcon, a “gamer” who only learned the controls as a secret admirer of Cairo aiming to meet him.

As it was originally aired on YouTube, the series has had some parts reshot for Netflix. As of this writing, there are hints of a second season in development.

A story told exclusively through screens is, as expected, face-heavy. As such, despite the non-traditional use of film, the series’ quality hinges heavily on its actors, and Canlas and de Santos deliver superbly.

Young Filipino production teams have been experimenting with new ways of audio-visual storytelling, starting with Saving Sally (2016), Cleaners (2019), and now Gameboys, told exclusively through screen interactions, reflecting the lockdown we’re all in.

Even without the pandemic, a story unfolding through social media interactions—from post comments to stories with 24-hour lifespans to more intimate video calls—still resonates not just with young people, but with most everyone living through the awkward moments, misunderstandings, and miscues that come with digital communication.

A story told exclusively through screens is, as expected, face-heavy. As such, despite the non-traditional use of film, the series’ quality hinges heavily on its actors, and Canlas and de Santos deliver superbly, not just as their characters fall in love, but as they eventually deal with realities revolving around the pandemic.

SCREEN LOVE Cai and Gav in a video call

Canlas captures the desire-hiding-behind-the-pakipot of a hesitant lover, his spunk and snark betraying his softness, building up to that inevitable, final fall. Some foreigners on YouTube, especially fellow Asians, resonate with this traditionally feminine type of response to love. Others though, commented their surprise at de Santos’s initial brashness, a confidence which reveals as much as it masks his character’s vulnerabilities.

Sure, it’s nothing deep, but it’s a well-done telling of a familiar story, deftly avoiding the pitfalls and clichés of telling a tale as old as time, much to the pleasure of audiences.

The only thing that seems off is the screen aspect ratio when some scenes are supposedly shot on mobile phones—landscape when it should be portrait. Is Cairo talking to an open laptop while walking down the street? Hardcore, bro.

One could point out, too, that this BL, like many in the genre, is decidedly upper-middle-class, focusing conventionally attractive young men living comfortably, but that take is best left to other critics.

At the start, viewers might feel a hint of voyeurism: the point-of-view of your FBI agent in the video call parts (or God forbid, when messages are being sent and received), while one might remember religiously viewing each and every disappearing story of one’s crush at other parts.

Skeptics might dismiss the screen-only story as gimmicky, but none of it comes off as contrived even in plotlines with emotional heft. Cairo and Gavreel push and pull, learn to trust one another, hurdle through miscommunications, and eventually deal with life slapping in some reality and, in the process, the audience does too.

Like any well-told story, one forgets being voyeur, taken wholly by the ride.

The original Gameboys series is free-to-stream on IdeaFirst’s YouTube channel. The Level-Up edition, featuring minor retakes and some bonus content, is on Netflix.