Summary: Burmese writer Do: Na discusses the popularity of ‘The Matches’, a Burmese boy-love (BL) series, amid Myanmar’s political turmoil. Despite societal shifts in attitudes towards LGBTQ+ themes and the film industry’s adaptation to mobile platforms, this phenomenon reflects Myanmar’s cultural evolution amid wartime struggles.
This article was completed under the ArtsEquator Fellowship. Views expressed are solely of the writer.
A Burmese boylove (BL) series, The Matches, reveals some insights into the entertainment culture in Myanmar during a time of war.
As a series, there is little to discuss about The Matches, aired and streamed on Canal+ Myanmar, a subscription channel both satellite and online. Its narrative about two men did not have a compelling concept to provoke any serious thoughts among viewers.
Yet, strong media buzz surrounding the show had propelled it into popularity. The series relied on mild bromance and its actors to capitalise on a strong fanbase; resorting to weak attempts of queer-baiting that persisted even after the show had concluded. These aspects have made a lasting impact on Myanmar’s culture and warrant careful examination and scrutiny.
All About BL – Myanmar, a Facebook page that shares about “BL series, BL movies, BL actors and real couples”, listed The Matches in their collection of “boylove” movies and music videos.
And yet, if you watch the show, it is essentially a crime story at heart. The main characters are a charismatic phantom, Wai Lin – played by Bhone Nay Lin Kai – and a shy young man, Nay Min Thit – played by Sithu Ye Htut – who can see Wai Lin.
Nay Min Thit helps Wai Lin to untangle the mystery of his death and the relationship portrayed in the show does not go beyond the cute male bonding, that is typical of “buddy movies.”
Yet fans have extended this platonic friendship into a perceived homosexual romance. This is evident from the creation of adorable fan art depicting cartoon couples and the sharing of romantic posts about them on social media.
The civil war, the atrocities of the dictatorship, and the perpetual political crisis in Myanmar have never given the LGBTQ+ community room to strive for their rights.
In the aftermath of the military coup on February 1, 2021, there were reports of the junta forces committing sexual assault and human rights violations against LGBTIQ people.
It is, therefore, paradoxical to see a company such as Canal+ Myanmar, incorporating the liberal narratives of boylove in their business model. The joint venture company between Canal+ in France and Forever Group in Myanmar is reputed as a huge crony media company with deep connections to the military junta.
It is also true however, that in everyday life today, the social stigma around homosexuality, humiliating portrayals of gay characters in Myanmar films, and derogatory slurs such as “Achauk” and “Achauk Ma” are, to some extent, seeing less of their place among generation Z.
Gay and lesbian movies, mostly from Thailand and Korea, have become a commodity readily accessible via mobile devices and YouTube, making the distribution of Burmese gay movies possible to a wider audience for free.
YouTube series like The Star, Love Story and short films like Bus Stop do not shy away from portraying sexual relationships between men, their emotional vulnerabilities and tears.
In The Matches, it was only during the promotional period, that the actors engaged in true physical intimacy; posing for the media by wrapping an arm around the other’s waist, stealing gazes and appearing abashed.
And only after the series ended did fan art depicting gay romance begin to emerge; such as the adorable cartoon characters of two actors in romantic style, a steamy short video of Sithu Ye Htut closing in to kiss Bhone Nay Lin Kai with an affectionate stare, and Cele Gabar (The World of Celebrity) Facebook entertainment page posting queer photos of the couple in white shirts, facing each other and holding hands as if making a wedding bow.
In The Matches, it was not plausible to depict any sensual exchanges, even such as a touch on the shoulder, between the characters, since one of them, Wai Lin, was a ghost, without a corporeal body.
Fan meetings for a “BL movie” are quite a new thing for Myanmar. The one for The Matches suggests that there is a growing “shipping” culture – urban slang that refers to fans who dream up a relationship, usually romance, between characters they root for.
This scenario might not raise concern. However, it becomes more noteworthy when considering that straight male actors Bhone Nay Lin Kai and Sithu Ye Htut, who consistently assert in interviews that they exclusively date girls in real life, started acting as if they seemingly fulfilled their fans’ desires in front of celebrity media.
Commercial products also happily capitalised on the queer subtext: as seen in the skincare commercial of Be Plain Myanmar in which Bhone Nay Lin Kai flirtatiously drew himself close to Sithu Ye Htut as he lay in bed.
Myanmar is in the throes of an armed revolution, and many people are still boycotting cinemas as an act of defiance against normalising military rule.
As the film industry struggles to keep alive, its old players have shifted their focus to producing local movie series. Audiences’ attention has relocated from the big screen to mobile phones; watching these series becomes a blend of distraction from the ongoing war and a moral dilemma intertwined with the enjoyment they provide.
Whether the phenomena of The Matches winning love and publicity by queer-baiting will sustain into trend is one thing, however, that this is all happening amid escalating conflicts across the country represents a significant facet of Myanmar’s cultural landscape during wartime.