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Hello Stranger's Petersen Vargas Wants Queer Filipinos to Feel Seen

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Boys' Love has a complicated history.

For those unfamiliar, the Asian genre (also known as "yaoi" in Japanese) is an umbrella term used to describe any media where the main narrative is focused on the romantic relationship between two men. By virtue of its existence, the genre can help push gay characters and narratives from Asian perspectives (BL has origins in Japan but is now popular in Thailand, Taiwan, and other Asian countries) to worldwide audiences, thus helping to further normalize gay relationships. But, oftentimes, BL titles aren't created by and for queer people, and often end up becoming nothing more than shallow, homoerotic fare that can borderline softcore porn. But Hello Stranger is hoping to help change all of that.

The series takes viewers on the whirlwind romance of high school students Xavier (Tony Labrusca) and Mico (JC Alcantara), two classmates who have been assigned to work together on a project that Xavier desperately needs to pass. Though the ongoing, worldwide pandemic has forced all of Xavier and Mico’s interactions to be done completely through Zoom, they still go through the typical phases many real-life couples go through when first getting to know each other (and that BL fans love to see): Indifference. Fondness. Friendship. Growing affection. And eventually, love.

Though the pair doesn't have much in common (Mico is a booksmart nerd who usually hangs out with his three best friends he affectionately calls the "Young Padawans," and Xavier is a jock with a girlfriend and a bustling social life), the two grow closer and closer the more they work together, and soon, their feelings for each other start to become painfully undeniable.

The brainchild of the ABS-CBN-owned film & TV production company Black Sheep, head writer Patrick Valencia, and director Petersen Vargas, Hello Stranger is the Filipino answer to the world's newfound demand of BL entertainment, telling a modern, post-pandemic story of two boys falling in love with each other online. What's remarkable with the show is that it comes without the weird, fetishized straight gaze fans may have become accustomed to. That is likely due, in part, to Vargas being gay.

"This generation of queer storytellers has been making a lot of waves in independent films," Vargas tells Out. "And from those films, we [now have] all these BL shows coming out online that are much more accessible, that can be streamed for free by anyone everywhere, anytime. That makes me more hopeful that more and more, the queer characters that we will see in Filipino content [will] be the characters that we aspire to, or that we will relate with, or that will really empower us at the end of the day.

"I think we're getting there and I'm living for it," he says.

With seven episodes of the series having already aired on YouTube (a highly-anticipated, final eighth episode is set to come out this week), and with millions of views amassed throughout its run, Hello Stranger has become a veritable internet phenomenon, complete with its own loyal fanbase that is ready to stan any and everything having to do with main romantic leads Xavier and Mico. But while the show centers queer Filipino people, because of how readily available it is to watch online, Hello Stranger's fanbase has gone global.

"The amount of support that we have, the amount of noise being created for the show is just so immense," Vargas says. "It's still so unbelievable that this kind of story could hold so much power, especially in these dark times. We're just so happy that finally, these stories are coming out as and people are embracing it — and not just here in the Philippines. It was such a painstaking process to define how we could Filipinize the genre, but at the end of the day, what we feel about Xavier and Mico could be felt by other audiences outside of the Philippines."

And speaking of the show's universality, one of the most relatable and heartfelt moments came towards the latter half of the series, when Mico finally found the courage to stop denying his feelings for Xavier and came out to his friends about it. Though everyone's coming out is different, and not many of us are as lucky to have loving, accepting friends like the Young Padawans in our lives, Vargas said he made it a point to include a coming-out scene in Hello Stranger.

"I think it's really important for us to still talk about coming out," he said. "We still have to positivize that experience and show it to viewers so that it could hopefully empower them."

"The specific ways we have our coming out, of course they're all different in these tiny details, but the feeling is all one and the same."

Of course, the popularity of Hello Stranger isn't just a singular occurrence. In fact, this year alone, the Philippines (which has its own complex, complicated history when it comes to LGBTQ+ acceptance and representation) has seen a rise in new queer-themed content available on streaming platforms like YouTube, with other popular notable titles like Gameboys, Sakristan, In Between, and My Day all making their own marks in the BL world.

"I was already thinking of making a BL show even back in 2018. So I think all these queer storytellers were just waiting for the right time for producers to say, 'Okay, we're giving you the go signal.' It matters to me that we finally found that right moment and to strike while the iron is hot. And it's just proving that the audiences have been hungry," Vargas says about Hello Stranger being a part of this new, recent wave of gay Filipino series having an impact on audiences worldwide. "People have been wanting this kind of content. And I'm more than thankful for Black Sheep for trusting me to work on Hello Stranger with them. It means so much to me that I could tell younger Petersen back in high school that 'Yay, we achieved our dream.' And we hope that younger kids now could be attracted to the show and they shouldn't be ashamed of going physically to a store. They can just go to YouTube and watch it for themselves. And it's that easy!

"When I went to film school and I knew that I could be one of the people who could make the kind of films that I wanted to see back when I was younger, like Love of Siam, " he also continues,  referencing the beloved 2007 Thai romantic-drama film that prominently featured a gay couple. "That was actually the first time that I've seen a boy in high school falling in love with another boy. And it confirmed to me who I was. It's this power of seeing yourself in films; how films and these kinds of shows could make you feel less alone." 

As for the future of Hello Stranger, though the series finale is nigh, audiences aren't quite ready to part with #XavMi (Xavier and Mico's official ship name) and friends just yet. Vargas and Black Sheep both recently announced that a movie sequel is in the works for the show, and unlike the series (which was filmed mostly through video conferencing apps like Zoom because of quarantine and pandemic restrictions in the Philippines), the stars will actually get to physically be together and interact with each other.

"I hope they continue to inspire people," Vargas says of the couple. "I hope they continue to affect people in ways that could empower them to be their true selves or that could empower them to be better friends, better support systems for people who are in need of them. My hope for these characters is that they live long enough to outlive us all.

"That's the beauty of making films or making these characters," the producer continues. "They can really outlive the people who made these stories. I hope our small show can continue living on in the minds of people, in the hearts of people. That they can carry on the things that we wanted to leave with them when we were making and thinking of this show." 

The Hello Stranger finale airs Wednesday, August 19 on Black Sheep's YouTube channel.

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