Note to my beloved subscribers: I’ve felt let down by the K-dramas I’ve watched recently. But I do have one recommendation just in time for Valentine’s Day—”Together with Me,” a new Thai drama (or lakorn, since “T-drama” was taken by Taiwanese drama). If you have suggestions who should play these leads in a Korean remake, let me know in the comments!
In the past few years, Thailand has produced a number of sweet, likeable TV series about gay men in love. Not shows in which the gay characters are part of a larger ensemble (like Modern Family), and not shows where friendships are more central than romance (Will and Grace). These romances put two men at front and center. The driving question is the old marriage plot: will they live happily ever after?
These shows are equally surprising and delightful whether you’re coming from a diet of Korean or American shows. Korean television is famous for its fluffy romances, but ignores homosexuality except for sideways glances (Answer Me 1997, The Lover, Coffee Prince). And American shows mostly shy away from any relationship story that risks being labeled “corny”—whether straight or same-sex. But starting with the widespread popularity of 2014’s coming-of-age narrative Lovesick, Thailand has carved out a niche for itself in the so-called “boys’ love” (BL) genre.
Some of these shows are thinly disguised excuses to attract female viewers with lots of handsome, semi-nude male actors. But good ones exist too, and run the gamut from tear-drowned melodramas to fluffy rom coms.
Together with Me, released in autumn 2017, is the first Thai show (or lakorn) I’ve watched, but I could see why the cute romantic comedy has immediately become a cult hit. This 13-part series (45-minute episodes) takes the heroes through the kind of gloriously absurd plot usually reserved for heterosexual characters, more Boys over Flowers than Secret Love Affair. There are long-lost childhood friends. There’s a raft of young people with really good hair. There are comic sound effects. Boing! Boing! Kaching! There’s wrist grabs, piggyback rides and badly done CPR. Not to mention the choppy, confusing editing in the early episodes takes us back to the K-dramas of a decade ago.
Nothing here is original except the identity of the protagonists, but that makes a difference. A screen romance lives or dies by the chemistry between the lead characters. And 23-year-old Max Nattapol Diloknawarit and 25-year-old Tul Thanasrivanitchai Pakornare take the sexual tension to It’s Okay That’s Love levels.
I’ve argued elsewhere that what we perceive as “chemistry” on screen is partly constructed by clever writing, editing and direction, not to mention good acting. But there’s no denying that there’s something else too, that spark of heat that convinces us that the actors—those professional fake-out artists—feel a real connection. Lots of romances that lack the spark still succeed in being great stories (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day, anything with Andie MacDowell, really), but a romance that does have the spark earns a place in an elite Hall of Fame.
Together with Me delivers the spark. The central characters, who go by the nicknames Korn and Knock, look at each other with enough yearning to propel a remake of Titanic. The script establishes convincingly that Korn and Knock are old friends who rely on each other. Their attraction isn’t just about sex. But the opening of the first episode plunges us straight into the middle of their first sexual encounter, and for the rest of the series they hover about two beers away from jumping into the sack again.
The two actors are friends off-camera, and their comfort with each other comes through in the flirting, kisses and sex scenes. This is in contrast to their relative stiffness playing the same roles as the secondary couple in the 2016 drama Bad Romance. Thankfully, in reprising their roles here, they’re armed with a much better script and a rapport that has inspired a whole sub-genre of “MaxTul” fan-fiction.
Their chemistry elevates a simple storyline. When Korn is reunited with his childhood crush Knock at college in Bangkok, he’s immediately interested, but Knock has a girlfriend. One drunken sexual encounter later, Knock can’t pretend the attraction isn’t mutual. But he’s angry that Korn took advantage of him when they were drunk. And he wants to hang onto his heterosexual image of himself—along with his wealthy, Instagram-obsessed girlfriend.
Knock’s melliflously named girlfriend Plernpleng is one-dimensional to the point of being entertainingly campy. She uses increasingly bizarre contrivances to keep her man Knock. Never mind that she doesn’t seem to like him much; his handsome face looks great on her Instagram account. He’s the ultimate accessory for an entrepreneurial woman in the heterosexual Bangkok bourgeoisie.
The more engaging story unfolds on an emotional level. Pretty-boy Knock becomes aware of his feelings for the thoughtful Korn. Korn tries to deepen their friendship without scaring Knock away. Both of them worry about what a homophobic world would say. And Korn’s high school ex-boyfriend wants to get back together.
The conniving girlfriend is almost an unnecessary device. Except she serves a crucial function by reminding us that Together with Me isn’t serious. This isn’t Brokeback Mountain. This is a comic melodrama that aims to get viewers jumping up and down yelling at the TV screen, hissing at the villains and cheering out loud when the heroes triumph. It’s as far as you can get from the Merchant-Ivory sophistication of Call Me By Your Name without leaving Planet Gay.
Together with Me offers a mixed bag of side stories. Korn’s fashionable, feisty friend Yihwa spends the series feuding with Plernpleng and mothering the series’ gay characters. Her quirky likeability is a good antidote to Plernpleng’s straight-up witchiness. There’s also a story about Korn’s architecture professor sister and Yihwa’s singer-songwriter friend Phubet. This straight romance is tedious except to remind us how hard it is to be a straight woman. Take note: these scenes are well-timed for getting up and making more popcorn.
One of the show’s producers is LINE TV, a division of Asian social media giant LINE, so the story misses no chance for the characters to get out their smartphones. Not every mention of social media is positive. Homophobic online rumors are at the heart of one of the show’s sweetest episodes. But social media is also portrayed as a safe space for coming out, as Knock seeks advice on an anonymous internet forum. Over the course of the series, all the characters post anonymous comments about “Thousand Mile Peach”‘s unusual dilemma, in a rare example of product placement that integrates smoothly with the narrative.
The final side story—about Farm and his first gay crush—turns cringe-inducing and then horrifying as Farm’s player boyfriend shows his real nature. The only important failing of Together with Me is that it runs out of time to resolve the surprisingly serious issues in Farm’s story. But Together with Me generally stays sweet and positive, and the series ends with laughter rather than tears. (Is it too much to hope for another season that focuses on finding a good man for Farm?)
It’s a missed opportunity that so few romantic comedies are about same-sex couples. It’s also a missed opportunity that some BL narratives fetishize rather than humanize their characters, providing washboard abs without much emotional depth. But Together with Me delivers its fan-service with a light touch, keeping its focus on the overwhelming sincerity of the main characters.
For anyone willing to surrender for a few hours to the benign befuddlement of the unfamiliar Thai culture, Together with Me is a very fun watch. It may be corny, but what did you expect? As Knock says at the end of the final episode, “It’s not drama. It’s a love story.” ♥
Where to Watch:
All of the English translations available so far are volunteer “fansubs.”
The version I watched disappeared abruptly from YouTube as I was writing this review.
I hope that means that an official distributor like Viki will pick it up for international distribution. But at the moment, Together with Me hasn’t yet been licensed for international distribution. That means its availability is subject to change.
The best English translation is by Lazy Subber, and can be found here at Dailymotion.com.
The Lazy Subber translation comes with the translator’s own idiosyncratic commentary. (Let it be known, Lazy Subber, I totally agree with you that Plernpleng is a psychopath.) If you don’t mind the commentary, this version is the best.
It’s been proofread carefully. The translator has read the novel upon which Together with Me is based and she uses this knowledge to explain a couple scenes that don’t make much sense otherwise.
Most importantly, it includes cultural notes and explanations of the sexual innuendoes. How else would I learn that in the Thai language “to smoke” is literally “to suck on a cigarette”? ♥
We’re in new territory here for K-Drama Today. Here’s the breakdown, so my readers who are under-18, Muslim, Christian or just plain cautious can decide for themselves: there are two short sex scenes, a lot of kissing, and lots of men walking around in boxer shorts (no speedos). There’s no nudity besides naked shoulders and chests (this is no Frozen Flower). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure a few frames violate the Motion Picture Association of America’s famous “no thrusting” rule.
The second sex scene in the series doesn’t come till episode 9 or 10. But the first sex scene appears in literally the opening moments of the series. This cold open has probably caused a few heart attacks among viewers caught by surprise. On the plus side, the first episode presents some of the raciest moments up front. If you can make it through episode 1 by strategically closing your eyes the first 20 seconds, you can probably make it through the series.
Note that there’s very little violence (a few punches) and it’s implied more than shown. These Thai actors really don’t know how to fake a punch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. ♥
A note about BL:
People familiar with Asian pop culture know this already, but it bears repeating for anyone new to the genre: “boys’ love” does not mean that the heroes are underage. “Men’s love” might be a more appropriate term, but “boys’ love” is the literal translation of the Japanese term shounen ai. Since Japanese women practically invented the genre, they got naming rights. A very small number of BL manga do enter the creepy territory of “shotocon,” sexual narratives about children, which could easily give the whole genre a bad name. But the vast majority of shounen ai narratives are about adults or older adolescents.
This is one of the only generalizations we can safely make about these narratives. Otherwise it’s hard to generalize. The authors of BL employ a wide variety of tones and narrative structures. We can make one additional generalization: BL originated as stories written by straight women for a straight female audience. Hence these narratives tell us far more about the emotional and sexual experiences of women than men. That doesn’t mean certain BL narratives won’t be enjoyable for men as well—I suspect Together with Me’s blend of camp, sex appeal and corniness will appeal to a wide audience—but it does mean that Thai BL lakorn are targeted primarily to the female gaze. ♥