REVIEW: Netflix’s Trese Could Improve Its Delivery of Darkness and Dwende

Alexandra Trese in Episode 1 of 'Trese.'

This review contains spoilers for Trese (2021).

“There are monsters among us, and some of them are human,” remarks Alexandra Trese, after cracking yet another case in the Philippine metropolitan of Manila, where the supernatural stalk its streets. Following in the footsteps of her father and coming from a significant lineage, Alexandra works as a detective tackling the paranormal side of the Philippines’ criminal underworld and the hidden interactions of monsters among men.

Based on an ongoing Filipino komik (comic) written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo, Netflix’s animated adaptation of Trese comes more than 15 years after the work’s original publication. Trese is well-acclaimed in the Philippines, and to adapt it to this new medium on a popular streaming platform may give it a boost to be better appreciated by international audiences. As both a Filipino and a huge fan of the komik, I came out of Netflix’s Trese with both love and some reservations.

Trese

“Episode 1”–“Episode 6”

Jay Oliva (director), Tanya Yuson (producer and writer), Zig Marasigan and Mihk Vergara (writers)
Shay Mitchell, Liza Soberano, Griffin Puatu, Simon dela Cruz, Jon Jon Briones, Christopher Carlo Caling, Matt Yang King, Apollo Abraham, Carlos Alazraqui, Eugene Adalia (cast)
June 10, 2021

Netflix’s Trese adapts only the first couple of issues of the komik. The cold open of the first episode takes us to the sudden stranding of a train (a real, recurring issue often lamented about by the locals) and its passengers are forced to walk down the tracks and make their own way to their destinations. Another group decides to head in a different direction, only to be subdued by aswang: a broad term to generally refer to monstrous, evil aligned creatures in Filipino folklore.

We are then treated to an introduction narrated by our main character, Alexandra Trese (Shay Mitchell in the English version and Liza Soberano in the Tagalog version), who explains how normal it is that shady activity in Manila happens in conjunction with the paranormal. It’s her job to maintain the balance between these worlds of night and day.

In a new case, Alexandra is tasked with investigating the death of a White Lady. The White Lady is typically described as a female apparition whose death is caused by some sort of tragedy, thus causing her haunting. The White Lady legend exists in almost every culture, so her stories vary. How do you kill a ghost? This case is adapted from Murder on Balete Drive, the first volume in the Trese series that kickstarted the story. Balete Drive is also a real street, and the case itself is based on the numerous local stories that haunt its roads.

Alexandra concludes the foul play needed to kill an apparition and recognizes crude attempts at magic. She turns to her informant, “Nuno” (Eric Bauza/Christian Velarde), a nuno sa punso (“old man of the mound”). A nuno is a small, elderly elemental that lives in a mound in the ground, and reciting “Tabi, tabi po” near its place ensures you do not anger it as you pass by. Otherwise, they respond positively to offerings, like sweets. Trese’s Nuno, on the other hand, has to settle for living within a manhole and has taken a liking to Choc Nut, a local candy bar: one of many examples of the series adapting folklore to a modern setting.

Nuno recognizes traces of ground mermaid bones at the murder site. But following this new piece of information, we are soon thrown down a roller coaster of other cases back to back. From raiding a secret aswang-led human smuggling ring and circling back to the train incident in the beginning of this episode  — crime, especially committed by powerful creatures, doesn’t seem to sleep!

A two-page spread of black and white comic pages. From left to right: on the first page, a young woman with short, black hair approaches a scene of a car accident already marked and surrounded by law enforcement. The woman approaches a mound on ground and tries to greet it, only to be called out off-frame, in a sequence that continues on to the next page. She kneels down to converse with a creature under a sewer manhole cover.
Pages from the new, respective Avenida and Ablaze editions of Trese: Murder on Balete Drive, in which artwork of the original book has been remade to better match the series’ current artstyle. Here in the chronology, readers are introduced to Nuno for the first time.

In between these different cases, we see flashbacks of Alexandra’s interactions with her mother, Miranda (Nicole Scherzinger/Cheska Aguiluz), which clearly have been substantial to her person. (At this point in the komiks, Miranda’s character has not been developed in its totality, so it is worth pointing out Miranda’s backstory here is unique to the Netflix series.)

Ultimately, after using her wits and beating up some baddies, Alexandra finally sees how these cases connect back to a corrupt politician who wants to assert his power. That said, this all happens in Episode 1. Although this premiere certainly packed a punch, I felt as though it ended up packing way too many things in. Numerous details of the cases from the komiks had to be changed to link back to a new and bigger political conspiracy that’s unique to the show. And not only have the cases themselves changed, but other elements that were otherwise considered pivotal to characters in the komiks were also modified or omitted altogether.

The pace of the series does become more focused on a case-by-case formula here on out, but each episode now opens with a black-and-white flashback sequence featuring a teenage Alexandra’s training and growth under her father, Anton (Carlos Alazraqui/Eugene Adalia). These flashbacks also tie into the backstory behind Crispin and Basilio (Griffin Puatu/Simon dela Cruz), collectively referred to as “The Kambal” (twins), Alexandra’s himbo pair of mask-wearing bodyguards that accompany her wherever she goes with their pistols.

From a car accident being tied to a tikbalang (a bipedal, humanoid horse creature) taking part in illegal drag racing to a starlet hiding an unwanted child through nefarious means: the stories of the magical underbelly of Manila vary far and wide. This once again stresses Trese’s achievement in the modernizing of past myths, while still making them relevant to many Filipinos’ present.

While this adaptation succeeds in its delivery of the world and its mythology, it falls short in other areas. When she’s not monster hunting, Alexandra is a proprietor of a club by day in the komiks. Although this omission does not affect much of the flow of the series, it does provide some insight into the depth of her many connections in Manila and how she gets things done. Bystanders in the Netflix series also seem more privy to Alexandra’s exploits as opposed to Alexandra being more secretive in the komiks. And although this has been subtly alluded to, there was a lack of any explicit elaboration regarding a major, civil conflict that ties into the motivations of certain characters we meet across the series.

But not all of these decisions did a disservice. In Trese After Dark, a short documentary special that features the cast and crew talking about the show, Budgette Tan even remarks that he may take some of the choices the adaptation made to apply to the rest of the komiks. For instance, Hank’s (Jon Jon Briones/Christopher Carlo Caling) role and importance to Alexandra has been elevated, but this is at the cost of choosing to not depict another character. As described earlier, Miranda was also brought into the foreground in a way she has yet to be in the series.

A masculine, humanoid, horse-like creature with dark gray skin and piercing red eyes holds a spear in one hand and wears a quiver of arrows on his back. Standing centered in composition, flanked by two, floating ghostly woman, he is looking towards something out of frame. Further back are two more creatures of his same kind.
Maliksi (Manny Jacinto/Steve dela Cruz), a tikbalang (a humanoid horse creature) standing alongside two wind spirits. Copyright Netflix.

The adaptation also doesn’t shy away from addressing social issues in the Philippines. Episode 4 focuses on a zombie infestation that has been altered to better comment more on the recent events around police brutality, compared to when it was first published in the komiks nearly 10 years ago. Captain Guerrero (Matt Yang King/Apollo Abraham), Alexandra’s main contact with Manila’s police department, finds himself at a moral crossroads when his precinct gets infiltrated by the undead. Although the original narrative posited that the cause was another source of political corruption, the animation rewrites it as critique towards the police themselves. The horde’s puppeteer reveals they have summoned the zombies in vengeance against the force’s disdain and constant mistreatment for the lower class. The facelessness and literal unidentifiable humanity of the zombie horde ties to the grave issue of numerous cases where the police arrested and killed citizens without remorse.

This storyline change proves to be significant for Guerrero, who’s developed more here than he is in the komiks. At first, Guerrero exists as a neutral character to move the plot forward, and usually stays distant from the specifics of the cases themselves until they are resolved with Alexandra’s help. At some point in Episode 4, he tries to position himself as one of the “good” cops, intervening in his colleagues’ mishandling of a suspect, saying, “We’re all assholes here, but I’m trying to be less of one, if you can believe that.” In some ways, Guerrero may be demanding the higher moral ground, but at the same time, he is acknowledging his complacency in a system in the midst of a real life spike of police brutality cases, further inflamed by the Philippine drug war. Even in its source material, Trese certainly does not hold back political commentary.

Ultimately, Netflix’s Trese comes to an end revealing that all of the cases are tied to a greater villain connected to the Kambal and Alexandra’s own upbringing. Unfortunately, due to the series’ intentions to try to fit in as much as possible in one season, there’s little time to truly understand the gravity of who the antagonist is and how the entire web of characters seemed to have existed only for their sake. At the end of the day, Alexandra Trese triumphs over evil once again — but I do not feel the ramifications of why that is important. So much time was spent sloppily trying to get everyone’s origin story out the door, all while forgetting to do the same for the antagonists’ intentions.

I think Netflix’s Trese has done itself harm by wanting to develop so much background as exposition, as opposed to focusing on the anthology-like nature of the komiks and trusting the viewers’ ability to learn through immersion. The urge to only briefly surface Alexandra’s backstory each episode means there’s not enough screen time to focus on the actual cases that need to be solved. Perhaps these conventions work when it comes to extending the running time of a teleserye (Filipino television drama), but not so much for an animated serial that has only been guaranteed a few episodes.

An illustrative collage of various characters from the series Trese, set as a backdrop behind a young woman and a pair of two dark-suited figures wearing masks. The woman has short black hair and and holds a knife, holding its point with another hand.
Variant dust jacket of Trese: Last Seen After Midnight, the fourth book in the original chronology of the series.

In the komiks, each issue is generally focused on one specific case, and only in Trese’s later volumes do we start seeing more recurring plot threads as we grow comfortable getting to know the cast. For example, in the first book, Murder on Balete Drive, you are flung into Trese’s pages with little to no background on the characters you are reading about — and it is effective that way. The case ends on a contained, conclusive note, distinct from the bigger arc that does later become relevant in the series. But Netflix’s adaptation decided to make it part of an overarching narrative that needed to be introduced early. The main reason why the komik Trese had little to no development established in its early chapters was because co-creators Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo came into the series initially unsure how much more of the series they were going to create at that time.

What the animation has done does not fail totally, but it truly only works within the scope of a “bingeable” format so popularized by Netflix and other streaming platforms. While you can step away from a komik issue and mull over what you had just read, you really need to watch Trese back to back to properly digest what happened to care about the finality of its ending. Perhaps — like with many Netflix produced series that seem to bear this issue — if Trese was guaranteed a much longer runtime, its direction probably would have not felt the pressure to resort to unleashing too much of its lore more than necessary due to an uncertain future season that would not be able to answer any remaining questions.

Still, Trese’s overall production is otherwise solid, and it is a series that presents itself as unapologetically Filipino for Filipinos. It is a series that does not feel obligated to go out of its way to over-explain the myths Filipino viewers already know, whether it having been passed on to you by a superstitious auntie or through learning about it offhand in mainstream pop culture. This was especially celebrated with the candid, found footage marketing campaign for the show.

It is important to clarify that the series was animated under director Jay Oliva’s Lex + Otis studio in California, which outsources its work to BASE Entertainment, based in Jakarta and Singapore. This makes it a global production for a global audience. I disagree with Netflix’s label of calling this show an “anime,” which I personally believe should be reserved for a very specific methodology that was not present in the production of this show. Oliva’s direction of Trese mirrors his own history of how he worked for DC Universe’s animated properties working across borders, yet those projects are still mainly considered American productions through and through. But with Trese having Filipino involvement across all levels, these thoughts perhaps beg a bigger conversation: What is considered Filipino animation exactly? Is this exclusive to production actually based in the Philippines itself? And like anime and donghua (Chinese animation) respectively, does Filipino animation deserve its own unique identifier as well?

As with anything, in transforming a story from paper to the digital screen, details will be inevitably lost. The show chose to stray away from the komiks’ stylistic, monochromatic inking for a more straightforward animation style very emblematic of Lex + Otis’ work — a particular style seen in Jay Oliva’s history with Warner Bros. Animation in works like Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Justice League Dark. The show’s Alexandra differs from her more unassuming appearance as a rather average looking person you cannot find in a crowd in the komiks. In the show, she’s someone who arguably looks more like a beautified anime-like character that bears resemblance to Makoto Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell franchise. However, this does not detract from the generally polished look of the show, with its especially well-animated action sequences. In one scene, Alexandra briefly puts aside her signature kris blade to swat at an enemy with a walis tambo, a type of Filipino broom. (And I think that’s pretty epic.)

It is also highly commendable that a clear effort was made to ensure that the majority of the voice cast (save for the Japanese-language version of the show’s seiyuu) is Filipino. Though there were some fan complaints in regards to Liza Soberano’s monotone performance speaking Tagalog in the Filipino-language version, I found it fitting for the stoic, closed-off nature that is Alexandra. Both she and Shay Mitchell, are not native to the Philippines and have had to make an effort to learn and improve their Tagalog for their performances. There are nuances important to speaking Tagalog that were especially noticeable and lacking with their performances when they were juxtaposed alongside actual fluent speakers. But this speaks more to an underdeveloped voice acting industry that still has work to do to properly convey and share Filipino languages as they deserve to be. Overall, Trese’s script remains faithful to the komik, intermingling different languages while uncompromisingly using Tagalog where necessary — a testament to the multilingual nature of living as a Filipino and stemming from our country’s colonial history and cultural mixing.

This effort to hire Filipinos applies to behind the scenes as well. “There is a Filipino in every part of the production,” executive producer Tanya Yuson declared in Trese After Dark. Yuson asserted that there are Filipinos across an international production that spanned teams from the United States, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines itself. And when they didn’t cast Filipino actors, they turned to Filipino-American actors for the English language version of the script, hiring Manny Jacinto, Dante Basco, Darren Criss, and many others.

This representation is consistent even through Trese’s sound department, which put out a soundtrack helmed by UDD, a well-lauded indie rock, synth, and shoegaze band based in Manila. The series’ opening song is a sampling of vocals from a traditional Ifugao folk song with UDD’s instrumentation, as if the yearning ghosts of a distant past, twisted and interlaced with different audio textures, are trying to find their place in the contemporary of Trese’s unsettling, gritty world. Elements of the title theme are sprinkled throughout the series as a motif during tense moments or specific story beats.

Netflix’s Trese may have its issues, but ultimately it created something that I myself would have never thought I’d see on a major platform. Admittedly, I cried watching all the different language versions of the series’ trailer over and over again, hearing my parents’ language and the stories of my culture being translated into a medium I am passionate about.

Despite having my share of problems with it, Trese is something I would still recommend for people to watch to at least get a taste of its world. As the future of more animated Trese remains unclear, I would hope the adaptation encourages new readers to dive right into the komiks if they wish to continue to follow along Alexandra’s adventures for more darkness and dwende (a mischievous spirit) in its black ink-laden pages. And in the end, Netflix’s Trese certainly does not deter me from still checking for monsters under my bed, before my regular night Tweeting; hashtag Pinoy pride.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things.

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