TharnType explores sexual violence in an intelligent way while struggling with the dictates of a genre created for titillation instead of complex storytelling
In the midst of a renaissance of BL stories, there are few that stand out of the pack. And with Taiwan’s HIStory series beginning to disappoint, it’s time to head back to the home of BL to see what’s on offer there. The currently airing TharnType is a prequel and companion piece to last year’s Love By Chance, and is one of the more interesting and intelligent BLs I’ve seen in a long time. And because of that, it may ultimately disappoint as much as HIStory has. But for now I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for both TharnType and Love By Chance as they share characters and plotlines, although they’ve recast most parts for the prequel.
The love story between Tharn (an openly and comfortably gay man, played by Mew) and Type (a confused belligerent young man in denial of his sexuality due to a childhood trauma, played by Gulf) is the kind of complicated, messy, possibly-doomed relationship a lot of people get involved in at some stage in their youth. In that respect, TharnType is far more complex and far more disconcerting to watch than the average BL out of Thailand.
It helps that Mew is an excellent actor who portrays Tharn with a natural subtlety that gives his character a lot of layers. While Gulf (Type) isn’t quite as good, he is elevated by working off the more experienced actor and as a consequence this has some of the best acting I’ve seen in a BL. It’s true that Mew is too old for the part but I defy an age-appropriate actor to bring what he does to this role.
Unfortunately, this script has been given the full Thai BL treatment, especially in its first few episodes. The direction is good, something that’s reflected in the performances, but the music and strange noises with which they insist on littering the show are heavy handed and sometimes openly annoying especially when you’re dealing with the type of material TharnType is covering.
Type tries to bully Tharn out of their shared dormitory, Tharn responds by aggressively sexually harassing and even assaulting him. It’s impossible to see either of these things as desirable or romantic behaviour, yet the producers seem determined for us to be titillated by the sexual violence and amused by the bullying. I had neither response and nearly dropped it, since the normalisation of sexual violence is a problem I have with Thai BL generally and Type is at all times a rude and bigoted asshole – a fact that Tharn himself acknowledges at one point.
Also, if you’re trying to prove to your homophobic roommate that you’re not a sexual threat then sexually harassing him seems like a bizarre choice, especially with what we later learn about Tharn’s inherently gentle nature. Perhaps the novels would shed more light on Tharn’s behaviour in the first few episodes but, from what we learn of him later, it’s hard to see this as being anything but out of character.
Once the show begins to settle into itself, however, it begins to break free of the dictates of the genre the script has unfortunately been forced into. Tharn is a lonely man, disappointed by love and terrified of rejection following the manipulative abuse of an older man when he was young, and Type is a very confused, very damaged one who has a long road to walk in terms of coming to terms with his identity. I take issue with the idea it’s Tharn’s job to fix Type but thankfully the script moves away from that sharply, dealing as much with the complexity of Tharn’s psychological trauma as with the obvious trauma of Type’s.
It becomes clear that this show is attempting to deal with the impact of childhood sexual trauma in various forms. Tharn’s might be more subtle but it affects him nonetheless. And it’s nice to see a Thai BL acknowledging that even if you consent to sex it can still affect your life and your relationships negatively.
The Tar/Tum relationship that bored us all in Love By Chance continues here where it’s far more thematically on point. Knowing that Tar eventually finds solace by talking to Type is a nice touch and we now understand precisely why Tharn’s ex-boyfriend would seek out his current boyfriend when he wants someone to confide in about his rape.
It would be unreasonable to expect a Thai BL to adequately grapple with the intersection of identity, social gender constructs, trauma and bigotry. But even with a script that is leaping through plot points like Superman bounding across continents TharnType does a far better job than anyone would expect it to. While it has moved too quickly and taken shortcuts with plotting and characterisation. It has not so far strayed into some of the traps common to Thai BL – Gay For You, Everybody’s Gay and inherent misogyny and mistreatment of female characters. While the latter are few and far between, the show treats them as human beings with real feelings and in this it’s a cut above the average BL too. I was particularly disgusted with the way Love by Chance dealt with its female characters – especially Pond’s girlfriend, who found herself victim to Thailand’s virginity cult. So far TharnType has avoided this, although it has begun to explore the way in which the culture’s misogyny can impact even gay relationships. The fear of being seen to be ‘female’ permeates particularly Type’s behaviour and expresses itself in various self-destructive ways.
If you can get through the cliched, often eyerolling first three episodes, TharnType is a welcome addition to Thai BL and I can only hope the writer manages to see this through.
Spoilers below for Love By Chance
As I mentioned above, this show is a prequel and companion piece to Love By Chance, both being based on source novels by the same author and set in the same universe. It’s a universe with a great deal of sexual violence and, while the show is grappling with these issues in the main OTP, it doesn’t have as much success with other plotlines across both shows. Having seen Love By Chance it is difficult to watch, for example, Techno being a loving and supportive friend throughout the show knowing that his brother’s friend is going to rape him. In fact, Techno’s brother being complicit in the rape is mirrored in Thorn (Tharn’s brother) being fine with his brother’s abuser still being in his life too. It’s a dynamic that’s hard to watch in both shows and, I guess, that may not be resolved unless there’s a second season of Love By Chance. I can only hope that when all plotlines are resolved, the show can come down heavily against sexual violence in whatever form it takes.