‘Never Let Me Go’ Has Been Worth Staying For
Feb 22, 2023   •   Eli Magsaysay
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Feb 22, 2023   •   Eli Magsaysay
I go back to one scene.
Palm (Pond Naravit) is alone by a pond. Recently plucked by his father from a small fishing village to be a recluse heir’s bodyguard-slash-classmate, he tends to hang around small bodies of water in the city, perhaps to feel closer to home. Right now he’s practicing Mandarin for class and he’s having trouble pronouncing the word for ‘friend’. His prior life gave him neither access to nor need for the language, after all.
Enter Nuengdiao (Phuwin Tangsakyuen), the said heir and classmate, who arrives with a smirk. Son of a recently murdered hotel tycoon, Mandarin is a language he grew up with. He doesn’t like that Palm is here to be his bodyguard and hates that Palm insists on calling him with an honorific. Yes, he is bullied in school and maybe his life is indeed in danger but he is more in need of a friend. Annoyed, Nuengdiao teaches Palm how to say the word ‘friend’, but again and again, Palm pronounces it wrong. He grabs Palm’s fingers and presses them against his throat. “Friend,” Nuengdiao says again, his eyes locked on Palm’s. “Remember this feeling.”
Friendship – let alone love and intimacy – is a foreign thing for both. Their difference in privilege makes it something Palm does not dare speak and something Nuengdiao has yet to truly experience. Palm insists on speaking like an employee but he’s already behaving like a friend. Nuengdiao insists on using the language of friends but he still behaves like a boss. Their mutual attraction is clear as early as the first episode but, both convinced they’re unworthy, Palm hesitates to name his feelings for Nuengdiao and Nuengdiao, in turn, dismisses Palm’s behavior as a mere performance of his bodyguard duties.
This dynamic is king in Never Let Me Go. Here, language and meaning struggle to align and actions motivated by feelings overlap with those demanded by duty. What becomes of it, then, is a gradual shedding of the roles they inherited and are forced with, a tearing down of the walls built by privilege, and a hope to grow out of their internalized unworthiness so they may behave as they say and say as they behave.
Director Jojo Tichakorn has said in interviews that he is inspired by Thai lakorn (a genre similar to Filipino teleserye), Hong Kong cinema, and 90’s action-romance films, and it shows in the series’ “you and me against the world” plot. Even Palm’s hair and wardrobe screams di Caprio in Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. It should be nothing groundbreaking, a story that involves an uncle plotting to kill his brother and in-laws to take over the business, one where the class divide between the leads is central, where the fierce female character in red struts to claim what is rightfully hers and her son’s. But for BLs, this is very rare.
Does it make significant changes to the genre’s narrative conventions? Not exactly. If anything, Never may be thinner in plot. But by turning a familiar genre into the container of a boys’ love series, the show lets us witness gay love in the kind of stories we grew up with and assert that gay characters can exist in such, too.
BL often offers a utopia where homophobia does not exist, but when some creators do pursue realism, they somehow tend to belabor queerness by making it the source of the main conflict, if not the cause of a tragedy. Never, however, succeeds in injecting queer realities without dwelling on it. In the first act, a photo of Nuengdiao and Ben (Chimon Wachirawit) kissing spreads in school. This incident leads to PalmNueng’s first kiss, forces Nueng to come out to his mother, and makes Ben confront the person responsible about the pain of being forced to come out of the closet. And then it moves on. Queerness is central to one conflict, but it isn’t the conflict. It informs the characters’ desires and it’s obviously integral to the show’s romance, but it’s just a part of the larger story.
Speaking of Ben, it is such a joy to see Chimon on screen again, and his chops paired with Perth Tanapon’s Chopper makes one excited for their upcoming lead roles in Dangerous Romance. Together, Chopper and Ben’s scenes never fail to be loaded with tension, their unexplored history looming heavy in each one. That their backstory is revealed in an anticlimactic and underwhelming fashion is one of the series’ pitfalls, especially considering how much these actors can deliver.
From the maroons and greens of the first episodes, the show transitions to the warmer tones of the second act as Palm and Nueng flee the city to hide in the island where Palm’s estranged mom lives. And shot after shot, the show does not drop the ball.
It is not just that it’s colored beautifully or that Thailand’s beaches are naturally breathtaking that makes this section great. Never’s photography feels intentional. Episode 6 in particular is such an effective mood piece where no gorgeous shot feels misplaced or without purpose; each contributes to creating a paradise where boundaries set by the city between Palm and Nueng are to disintegrate, where their feelings and desires are encouraged by everything and everyone around them to grow greater than their fears and reservations.
The second act introduces us to Palm’s mother, Mam (played by an incredible Pannada Ruangwut), who left him as a child to pursue a life outside her duty. It is easy to dismiss her as a bad mother, but one thing Jojo Tichakorn does so well is painting three-dimensional portraits of women and making them impossible to not root for however morally gray they are. Nueng’s mom is a land-grabber and yet we feel for her because she’s such a good mother. Mam’s monologue about having to choose between duty and self provides a peek into the crossroad Palm is bound to face, and she leaves such a lasting impact that we still reel from her eventual loss.
Aside from his nuanced female characters, many of Tichakorn’s signatures are present in his first foray into BL: everything is rooted in class struggle, the capitalist patriarch is the main villain, the portrayal of gay intimacy.
The show’s direction does fumble, though, and usually it’s when it tries to employ BL staples and doesn’t commit to its soap opera potential. The slo-mos, the overstretched staring contests, talking so close to each other’s faces for no reason—such scenes often feel unnatural for Tichakorn. PalmNueng staring at each other for several seconds, for example, got nothing on PalmNueng briefly catching each other’s eyes while waltzing with other partners. The show shines the most when it captures fleeting moments instead of milking the manufactured ones, when the characters move instead of remaining stationary. Nevertheless, the show does offer a fresh take on the BL genre and I look forward to how Jojo Tichakorn applies everything he learned from this to his next one, Only Friends.
In their second project together, PondPhuwin’s chemistry leveled up and their non-verbals got sharper. My main quibble with them, though, is in how they deliver lines. There’s an ease missing in some quieter scenes and a need for whispers in a few. Pond tends to speak in a monotone. Phuwin could use more nuance and restraint. Yet still, they work.
Perhaps because bones to pick aside, their portrayals feel grounded to their characters’ cruxes and contradictions. Pond’s Palm comes with an earnestness that’s hard to not root for. He is innocent but street-smart. He’s naive when it comes to love but very cautious with the world. He is child-like one second and sexy the next. Meanwhile, Phuwin embodies Nuengdiao as someone who knows his power. It’s why he wouldn’t fight back. He’s the intersection of brat and underdog, blurring the line between command and request, too kind to embrace the power he was born with but too proud to plead for the love he lacks.
Together, Pond and Phuwin’s portrayals of Palm and Nueng paint an aching portrait of children who only seek love, but are forced into the mess of adults no matter their reluctance and refusal. And when this mess finally invades the paradise it took them hell to find, it feels right as much as it is heartbreaking that the same love they sought out in power’s stead will be the reason they become adults who decide to take up arms.
Never Let Me Go’s series finale streams on iWanTFC (Tagalog dubbed) and on GMMTV’s Official YouTube Channel (Original language) on Tuesday, February 28.
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