After watching Lovely Writer, which called out several issues in the BL industry, I wanted to review Call It What You Want by Aam Anusorn. I wondered if there would be similarities in how they handled industry problems or if they would be very different stories. It soon became apparent the two series were unique in tone & issues raised. However, they both brought attention to problematic areas of the genre.
—Edited by TheFNGee
CIWYW is loosely based on actual events that have taken place. Some artistic license has been used, but most events and plotlines actually happened, with the names being changed and a few additions for effect. From the very first episode, the character Director James drew us into the world of BL through his eyes, that is, of someone new to the genre. As he uncovers more about the expectations of the production company that hired him, he begins to realize it’s not going to be easy to adapt to this new genre.
The rules for him are strict. There is low pay with high expectations regarding his duties. He will be responsible for more than just directing. Also, there are many rules and regulations included in his contract, which he doesn’t go over with a fine-tooth comb. Note to everyone, read every line of any contracts you receive and ask questions if you are unclear before you sign your name on the dotted line.
The Characters (a Recap)
James (The Director)
The “Director James” is portrayed here by Time Dhamawat Suntanaphan.
Bas (The “top”)
Bas is played by experienced young Thai actor Michael Kiettisak Vatanavitsakul.
Ait (The “bottom”)
Ait is played here by BL newcomer Benz Panupun Vongjorn, who will also play another role P’Aam’s “Secret Admirer.”
Marco (“The friend”)
A gorgeous Taiwanese model and friend of Director James, whose feelings for James run deep
Kaprao (“The fired star”)
One of P’Aam’s goto actors and another favorite of ours, Kaprao Pongkorn Wongkrittiyarat.
When James is first introduced to the actors, their characters are referred to only as their sexual position in the show, i.e., a Top or Bottom. This characterization can be seen as a social commentary on the YAOI stereotypes that have permeated the Thai BL industry. Their Japanese terms are Seme or Top and Uke or Bottom. They each come with their own set of expectations. The Top must be manly, fit, and masculine. The Bottom must be smaller and more effeminate, taking on the women’s position during sex or the “receiver.” These are the inheritance of a Manga genre created by women, for women in the 70’s, depicting romantic love between two men.
After meeting his actors, James learns there are unique contractual agreements between the company & the actors. For starters, they are not allowed to use cell phones while filming. These rules are overly controlling and can be extremely punitive. Tee, the company manager, and producer, manages the actor’s social media accounts. He claims he knows what fans want to see, so he gives it to them. The fans believe it’s the actors engaging in banter online, but in reality, it is all carefully crafted and manipulative process controlled by management. This way, they also manage the “images” of the actors as well. The company can terminate their contract if they use their cellphones.
There is also a push to have the actors fix their “problem areas” by forcing them to receive plastic surgery. Ait has a nose job because Tee claimed it was deformed. Companies pressure and strong-armed the actors into getting work on their face & body done to meet the physical characteristics considered good in the industry. However, I have heard of cases where the options were open to actors to have plastic surgery if they wanted, and it would be an expense covered by the management company. So there could be two sides to this issue. It depends on the management company. And the “Top” must undergo a strict diet of ‘chicken-shakes’ to keep his body “fit” for his role.
As the main story involves James and Ait falling in love, I wanted to talk about how cute their love story is. The actors were able to convey the growing feelings between the director and his lead actor. I loved the late-night phone conversations and the long looks between the two. After James’ car is repossessed, James asks him for a ride to work since Ait lives close by. The two chat in the car, getting to know more about each other. The conversation flows naturally between the two, which lends realism to the scene. However, the lovely time they spent together does not come without consequences. Tee calls James into his office.
Tee has seen the pair arriving together. He informs James that under no circumstances should they be allowed to ride in the same car alone because it could cause problems in the media. Tee breaks everything down by money. If the fan club saw and posted it to social media, it could damage Tee’s carefully crafted image of the couple. Actors are bought and paid for commodities sold to satisfy consumers’ fantasy of the acting pair being romantically involved with each other. Also, Tee reminds James that his money comes from selling this story as well.
The other character’s in the story are Marco, the best friend of James, and Bas, the other lead actor. We learn so much about James yet so little about Marco. We know that they have been friends for four years, and that Marco is a model. He visits James frequently to take care of his friend. He feels a bit like a mother hen type of character, and the two seem very comfortable with each other. Bas is a mystery. We know he wants to make his parents proud and that he pushed to become an actor. Bas seems quiet and withdrawn when not working. Also, he has problems with his stomach, throwing up frequently, which is blamed on the chicken shakes he consumes. But it’s much deeper than that.
As James and Ait become closer to each other, they realize hiding their relationship may be difficult, but they are willing to make it work. Bas, meanwhile, seems like a wire tautly stretched between two forces, about to snap at any minute and become undone. Bas finds photos of James and Ait together on James’ phone, mails them to himself, and deletes them. This action happens while Marco, who’s cat sitting, is staring at the pictures with tears in his eyes. I don’t think I understood his feelings until that moment. I felt that we were meant to view Marco the same way as James does – a good friend.
Additionally, Tee takes Bas to many places for appointments. At this point, no one negatively thinks about this. But I see the writing on the wall. You can see that Bas is displaying signs of someone being abused. The quiet desperation, the silent tears, the sudden throwing up when someone mentions the previous actor Kaprao, who’d been fired. The replaced actor accuses Tee of sexual abuse in the media stating that Bas can confirm this. Bas says nothing, and Tee tells every one to carry on while he goes quietly away to deal with the scandal. James reassures Tee that he thinks the allegations are false. He seems too quick to believe this callous man, so I am surprised at his acceptance that obviously, the actor is lying. Things finally come to light as Bas, who is broken, confesses what Tee did to him. He tells Ait, who holds him and comforts him. The pair go to see James in the early morning, and Marco is there too.
The scenes with Bas confessing to Ait and where Bas talks to James and Marco are powerful and beautifully done. Each actor delivers an excellent performance as you feel all the different emotions from each person in reaction to hearing of Bas’ abuse. Bas himself is ashamed, convinced somehow he’d done something wrong, convinced that he is worthless. James is shocked and horrified to hear what Bas has been through. Marco feels the most empathy for Bas and tries to comfort him with small touches to let Bas know he’s not alone. Ait relies on James to fix the problem but is extremely jealous of Marco being in James’ apartment. It seems a strange time for jealousy, but all the more realistic. Bas asks them to keep things quiet until his contract expires as he may not get another chance to work in the BL industry. The fucked up thing is that everyone agrees to this. At this time, Bas and Marco leave James’ apartment.
Marco gives Bas a ride to Bas’ family’s house, and they stop at the store. Marco buys two sandwiches, and Bas refuses to eat his. Marco bites a few pieces of his burger and hands the rest to Bas. When Bas finally takes that first bite of burger, we see the tears begin to fall. This heartwrenching performance once again strikes me. It’s brilliant as it rips into your heart as you watch Bas eat real food for the first time in months. Kudos to both actors for this scene.
Now I want to come back to Bas’s request to keep quiet about the assault. I was disappointed they honor Bas’ wishes. It made me very angry at everyone in that room except Bas. Because if this accusation can come to light, Bas could begin to heal and help his former co-worker Kaprao, who took a big risk when he exposed the issue to the media. However, I understand this world isn’t clear-cut. We can’t force others to behave in ways we want. I wanted immediate and swift justice as any abuse infuriates me. From what I have heard in the BL industry, especially in Thailand, some people in power take advantage of their positions and the young men’s ambitions to force them into a sexual relationship or assaults them, then forcing them to keep quiet if they want to further their career with future opportunities. There are parties with young men wishing to break into BL hosted by powerful men, complete with drugs and booze, and Aam successfully shines a spotlight on the seedy salicious underbelly of the Thai BL industry.
The scene of a jealous Ait and cajoling James who have words after Marco and Bas have left feels out of place. Maybe it’s me, but after having sat through the very emotionally heavy conversation about Bas’ situation, I would think their thoughts and emotions would still be on that topic. As it happens in the show, they show James reassuring Ait that he and Marco are just friends. Then we have their first time together as lovers. However, I’m not feeling it because of Bas having ripped my heart out. The idea that they just shove it away in their minds to deal with later doesn’t sit well with me either. After experiencing or just hearing about something so serious, I would find jealousy to be a trivial emotion. And how can the mood shift to intimacy so quickly after such a serious conversation? In my mind, how do you go from assault and rape described by someone and shift into a lover’s spat which ends in lovemaking? It would be last on my mind or mood.
Marco takes Bas to the beach, so Bas isn’t left alone to deal with his trauma. Marco gives Bas back some of his voice and power by encouraging him to shout his anger into the sea. This event breaks through the mostly silent Bas, who finally gives his hurt and rage an outlet-another powerful scene. These two actors pull me in with such force I hold my breath at times, waiting for what’s next.
Aam is a brilliant director. I’m not saying that to suck up to him either. He brings realism to every film or series he directs. I believe in these people, and I feel what they feel. They make me happy, sad, angry and scared at times. So well, in fact, that this series hits home, especially in dealing with the real-life implications of what BL actors are forced to go through and may experience. I’m proud he did not shy away from tackling this subject head-on. Aam has always been outspoken about the issues he sees in the industry; from an insider perspective, he calls out problematic behavior. I am glad he’s an advocate for the actors who sometimes have little or no voice.
I look forward to Season 2. I want to see Tee face the serious consequences of his actions.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. [See our Review Guide]