Warning: This series and article tackle sexual harassment, exploitation, and suicidal thoughts. This article also contains spoilers for “Call It What You Want” season one.
Why do we love romances? Most will point at the burgeoning butterflies that creep up in our stomachs whenever two characters get their romantic eureka moment. Rom-coms are escapism at their finest, and for a lot of its viewers, the same thought runs for Boys Love (BL) dramas.
With its roots stemming from Yaoi manga, BL stories offer something that mainstream media often lacks: more leeway to explore sexuality minus the weight of societal norms, where queer folks can be queer, while staying human at the end of it all. In BL, queer people aren’t sidekicks and subplots to their cishet friends. They get their happily-ever-afters that they’ve long been deprived of, no matter how cheesy it gets.
But beyond the picture-perfect world of fluff, a dark cloud hangs over the making of BL dramas. In the case of Thai series “Call It What You Want,” this is its premise.
Directed by “2Moons2” and “Present Perfect’s” Aam Anusorn Soisa-ngim, the first season’s six episodes spotlight James (Time Dhamawat Suntanaphan), a struggling filmmaker recruited as a director for BL series “2Nights.” The gig is less than ideal, though, when its previous director and lead actor got sacked after controversies that hit local news.
During their first workshop, James formally meets the lead actors of “2Nights,” introduced as the “Top” (Bas, played by Michael Kiettisak Vatanavitsakul) and “Bottom” (Ait, played by Benz Panupun Vongjorn). Bas finds refuge in acting, memorizing each and every line of his script, calling the craft his passion despite his family’s disapproval. Ait is his cheekier counterpart, a first-time actor who locked eyes with James the moment they met.
As any viewer would normally expect, Ait and James’ romance would eventually unfold in full bloom. Despite rules that disapprove of their director-actor relationship, the pair can’t help their growing feelings—James denies his attraction to Ait in favor of saving his job, but Ait is more “to hell with it” and is fine with sneaking around. It all concludes in episode five when Ait passes James a note that says, “If you’d be my boyfriend, turn around.” (He does, of course.)
Even if they’re the main couple, Ait and James’ relationship feels like a light-hearted side plot, what would normally be reserved for supporting characters. They fall in love in a snap, and right when they meet, Ait asks James if he is single, despite being his director. The show explains this in very meta moments, with several scenes pushing the “love at first sight” argument while rehearsing for “2Nights.”
But the show thrives in its more serious moments that build up in the littlest ways throughout the season. This comes crashing down in the finale, typified by one character who’s been sidelined: Bas.
In episode six, viewers find out the real reason why “2Nights’” former actor left: He was molested by their strict producer Tee. Bas is left stunned, but is later provoked to tell his own story about a night when Tee had sexually abused him.
Ait and James might be the romance, but they aren’t the heart of the show. “Call It What You Want” succeeds when it gets blatantly real, masked by fictitious characters that, during these haunting moments, feel like authentic people.
At that moment, everything about Bas seemed to make sense. Red flags are scattered throughout the series: In episode one, James finds Ait with a bandage on his nose, because their producer had him undergo plastic surgery. Several scenes have Bas running to the bathroom to vomit, since his diet only consisted of chicken shakes to maintain his figure. The two actors weren’t allowed to keep their phones and were prohibited to be seen with other people, or else shippers would break Twitter apart.
Bas would casually say “I want to die” and pass it off as a joke. His erratic behavior is shrugged off by Ait most of the time, calling it a byproduct of Bas’ strict diet.
Right from the get-go, “Call It What You Want” is dubbed as something “inspired by true events.” As a director of several other BL dramas, Aam Anusorn Soisa-ngim took influence from his own experience behind the scenes, marked by a time when an actor reportedly confessed that he had been abused on set. “Call It What You Want” fictionalizes that, while fleshing out real problems that most viewers don’t get to see: objectification and exploitation, whether it’s the sense of ownership of actors from the production’s bigwigs down to the devout real-person shippers of Stan Twitter.
Ait and James might be the romance, but they aren’t the heart of the show. Regardless of the series’ strongest point being pushed to the season finale, “Call It What You Want” succeeds when it gets blatantly real, masked by fictitious characters that, during these haunting moments, feel like authentic people.
“Call It What You Want” season one is available on Upstream.ph. See the trailer below.
Stills from “Call It What You Want”