Netflix’s ‘Trese’: darkness and magic in the underbelly of Filipino society
The animated series Trese is finally out on Netflix. This after a more than a decade of attempts by various studios to turn the property into a movie or TV series, the serial graphic novel by writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo can finally be seen in fully-colored animated glory. And is it the glorious masterpiece that fans hoped it would be?
When people associate “Philippines” with animation, they think of the various studios here servicing Hannah-Barbera or Toei, where Filipino animators do the detailed grunt work within an international animation pipeline. The animation industry here is, at best, a service industry; one that has brought about jobs and opportunities for some of the country’s talented artists. It is confounding that as far as original content production is concerned, the Philippines has been lacking. Despite being a country rich in stories and mythology animated content that appeals to our culture or even our daily lives is lacking. Sure, there’s RPG: Metanoia and Dayo, but their dismal box-office returns have not exactly encouraged producers to make more.
Enter BASE Entertainment, which has turned the highly successful “Trese” IP into a 6-part series on Netflix.
Most of the people involved in this production are Filipinos (producer Tanya Yuzon, writers Zig Marasigan and Mihk Vergara, English voice actor Jon-Jon Briones) or of Filipino descent (executive producer and animation veteran Jay Oliva, Alexandra Trese voice actor Shay Mitchell, and most of the English voice cast). The voice actors of the Filipino language version are a who’s-who of the local voice acting circuit, and they got the highly popular star Liza Soberano to voice the local version of the titular character). This is as Filipino as it gets for an internationally-released series.
The striking thing about the show is how authentically Filipino its world feels. Nothing too glamorous like a beach video, but it is not poverty porn either. This is Manila, warts and all: the malls, the infrastructure, the squatter shanties. For Filipinos, this is home.
But how safe is home, really? “Trese” depicts a Manila with corrupt mayors, errant cops, squatter shanties, a public transport system that keeps on breaking down; all straight from the headlines. Add in aswangs, ghosts, elementals, and demigods, and the result is a defamiliarization that still feels strangely familiar. It is this dissonance that has made the comic books amass a large fanbase, and it is carried over well here. When you look at the locations, Filipinos can say “Hey, I know that place! I’ve walked there! My mother lives there! I’ve been stuck in the MRT for hours!” And so on.
For Western audiences, this is nothing new. But for Filipinos, it means everything. It is truth. And the truth is oftentimes complicated. We are all familiar with pre-election grandstanding from corrupt politicians; imagine if they had access to otherworldly powers, the kind of powers that can kill their mistresses twice.
Shay Mitchell vs Liza Soberano
This is probably why the main character Alexandra Trese is practically a force of nature unheard of in Filipino society: a smart detective with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, able to scare the most frightening of demons in their proverbial pants. But this is also where her portrayal becomes tricky: how do you make a force of nature interesting? In the English-language version, Mitchell delivers a very nuanced portrayal of what would otherwise be a Mary Sue; she is icy in public, commanding in a fight, but vulnerable and afraid in situations reminiscent of a red herring from The Empire Strikes Back (as to whether this plot point from Episode 6 is real or not is up to the next season; if true, then it adds a complication to the character that was not in the comics). Soberano’s performance in the Filipino-language version unfortunately does not match this nuance. Her Trese has two modes: icy and angry, even during the times she needs to feel vulnerable. There are moments, however, when one can sense a fierceness in Soberano’s performance that one has never seen in the various romance movies she has been more famously known for. Hopefully this can be rectified in the next seasons (based on the Trese After Dark special on Netflix, Soberano seems to have invested herself heavily in the character. Hopefully she gets to cut loose in the future).
The rest of the voice cast in both English and Filipino versions act superbly well, as they should. Much has been said about the stilted Tagalog pronunciations of the former version, and for mainland Filipinos it does tend to be distracting, as Pinoy have been known worldwide to have a “neutral” accent (whatever that means). One can suspect that the thicker accents are due to the Fil-Am voice actors’ perceptions of their elders’ manner of speaking, and were thus exaggerated for this show. That aside, the dialogue worked well.
The Filipino dub was jarring. First, because the wording used did not reflect the colloquialisms of both the strangely-familiar imagery of the show, and of the original comic books. Second, the Tagalog subtitles did not match the words being uttered. This can be jarring for the local viewer. Having said that, the voice cast acted the hell out of the material they were given. Captain Guerrero sounds like a Captain Guerrero of the Philippine National Police.
The pacing of the 6-episode series is another questionable matter, as it seems to have combined two or three cases in the comics into one episode. While the show does not have to be beholden to the exact storylines of its source material, the attempt at brevity came at the cost of the depth and richness the comics had. Sayang.
There is also the matter of how everything comes to a head towards episodes 5 and 6. Trese‘s flavor has been described as “Manila noir,” and rightfully so. It is this journey into mystery that has immersed its fans in its world-building. Come episode 5, the reveal of a “conspiracy” and the subsequent slugfest (hello, Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows) does give the impression of a show blowing its load early on. This is a narrative risk, one which we’ll see if it pays off in the next season. Having said that, did Datu Talagbusao really need to have 10 minutes of monologue?
All those nitpicks aside, the show is as immersive as its comic book counterpart. The texture of its worldbuilding is what makes Trese what it is, which is uniquely Filipino. At a time when the nation is asking itself “what is Filipino,” the answer seems to be “it is what we have now.”
That this social existentialism is reflected by a fantasy series is nothing short of amusing, if you think about it. Here is hoping we have more seasons of Trese to keep the conversation going.
POSTSCRIPT: Kudos to the Kiner Brothers (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, Doom Patrol, Narcos: Mexico, Titans) for the opening theme based on an Ifugao chant. Having non-Filipinos create the theme could have easily resulted in a very Orientalist/exoticized approach, which thankfully did not happen.