Based on the critically-acclaimed comics by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, Trese is an original Netflix animated series that follows the story of Alexandra Trese, an occult investigator with magical powers. She is also the resident lakan/babaylan, aka warrior/healer; one who upholds the balance between the mortal and the spiritual world.
While the concept may not be 100% original (think Hellboy, John Constantine), what makes Trese unique is its Filipino setting: the story happens in the bustling city of Manila, and features many characters and creatures from Filipino mythology.
When it comes to the fantasy genre, we’ve had plenty of stories revolving around Western, Egyptian, Roman and even Greek mythology, but very little on Southeast Asian culture – which is why the hype was massive (especially in the Philippines) leading up to Trese’s release.
And I’m happy to say that it does not disappoint.
Mysterious crimes are happening all across Manila, and they seem to be from supernatural causes. At their wits end, local police enlist the help of Alexandra Trese. Alexandra’s family has long acted as a bridge between worlds – her father Anton was once the laban, while her mother was a babaylan (shaman) – so ever since she was born, Alexandra has had a strong connection to the spirit world. In the course of the series our heroine, together with her twin bodyguards Crispin and Basilio, investigate a string of murders and disturbances – culminating in encounters with beings such as aswangs (man-eating vampiric ghouls), duwendes (goblins), tikbalang (horse-like creatures), zombies and tiyanaks (baby vampires). The events are not isolated, and indicate that something catastrophic is coming – which would involve the destruction of both the human and the spirit world.
Why You Should Watch It
Trese’s Filipino touch makes for a unique and refreshing take on the fantasy genre. I mean, it’s not everyday that you get an animated series based on Southeast Asian mythology – which is a shame, because the culture is so rich with amazing stories, symbols and characters. The fact that it’s on Netflix is a great step in the right direction (especially in today’s climate where companies are looking to champion diversity), because it appeals to a modern audience of young Filipinos to reconnect with their roots, and at the same time, introduce the culture to an international audience.
While the creatures are fascinating, you also get Filipino references in things such as Alexandra’s weapon (a kalis, which looks very similar to a Malay/Indonesian dagger called the keris). Another example would be Alexandra’s bodyguards Crispin and Basilio, who were named after characters in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. In the first episode, Alexandra investigates the apparent murder of the ghost of the White Lady of Balete Drive – a Filipino urban legend that is as popular as Bloody Mary might be to the British.
And then you have a plethora of pop-culture references to spot: in one episode, a movie studio where Alexandra and her team investigates has a sign saying ‘ABC-ZNN’, a cheeky play on ABS-CBN, the now-defunct major TV news network that was embroiled in a licensing controversy last year. You also get glimpses of everyday Filipino life: commutes in jeepneys and packed trains, a neon-lit skyline – all captured through a pretty art style that perfectly showcases Manila’s chaotic beauty.
Granted, I think sometimes these references might be lost on non-Filipino audiences (I only knew about Crispin and Basilio because the hubs and I were discussing about Philippine Independence Day – I initially thought Crispin was from St Crispin and Crispinian), but even if you’re non-Filipino, it’s not crucial to the plot, and doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the story. They’re more like hidden Easter eggs that those in the know will find satisfaction in spotting.
But what I like the most about Trese which sets it apart from others is that it does not shy away from shining the spotlight on real Filipino issues such as police brutality, the drug war and abortion, in a country that is highly religious and predominantly Catholic. Which to me shows that care has been taken to ensure the show is as culturally accurate and as relevant as possible. It’s not just one of those ‘feel-good, show only the best side’ kind of stories.
Alexandra’s character, despite her grim demeanour, is likeable and well-developed. You feel for her doubts and her struggles, living in her father’s shadow, constantly being told that she is ‘just like him’, but yet feeling inferior that she might not live up to people’s expectations of what she should be. But at the end of the day, I like that she finds her own strength – and the message that one can trust to someone they look up to to guide their actions, but not need to be exactly like them.
My only peeve with Trese? The pacing is good in the beginning but feels extremely rushed towards the end – as is common with many animated series.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Trese, and I think it’s worth a watch for fans of animation and fantasy stories alike. First Raya, then Trese – maybe this will be the start of the rise of Southeast Asian-themed shows. I’d love to see one with Malaysian mythological characters like Badang (not like the shit that starred Aliff Syukri, I mean a proper one), Mahsuri and Hang Tuah.
Now, tabi-tabi po. Time to go catch up on some Trese!