Netflix’s ‘Trese’ Spotlights Filipino Folklore Through Binge-able Storytelling

The highly anticipated anime adaptation of Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s comic book series, Trese, is at last available to stream on Netflix. The adventures of hardcore investigator Alexandra Trese spring from the black-and-white comic illustrations into this beautifully animated, heavily detailed world, filled with tons of action, Filipino folklore, and a destiny cemented by circumstances but defined by respectable character.

(Before proceeding any further, I should make it clear that I’m going to keep it minimal on comparisons regarding how it holds up to its source material, and this is largely because only the first book of the series, Murder on Balete Drive, has been made available so far from its international publisher, Ablaze Publishing. The next two books of the series, Unreported Murders and Mass Murders, won’t be coming out until later this year.)

The underworld is making its presence more and more known on the streets of Manila, and it’s up to Trese to deal with them. A wide variety of creatures from Filipino mythology make appearances across the six episodes, such as tikbalangs, aswangs, nunos, and even a santelmo. The series makes way for a deep dive into this lore of creatures that viewers might have grown up hearing about, have some familiarity for, or are learning about for the first time.

TRESE (L to R) ERIC BAUZA as NUNO THE SNITCH in episode 103 of TRESE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

In keeping with putting a spotlight on Filipino culture, the English dub of Trese felt oddly diasporic, even though it’s set in Manila. This impression came to mind while listening to Shay Mitchell deliver our heroine’s lines, and more often than not interact with characters who respond in Filipino accents. That plus the bits of Tagalog heard throughout also felt similar to what it’s like being amongst the Filipino community here in the United States. Even the appearances of Baybayin (pre-colonial Philippine script writing) feels so satisfying to see, especially when the likes of Kristian Kabuay keep the practice alive for the current generations and descendants of the diaspora.

While Trese is very much the badass that she is like in the comic books, the show does a good job of building up her backstory. While her family name alone precedes her from the similar line of work her father, Anton (Carlos Alazraqui), did while she was growing up, her experiences leading up to the moment where she took over as the Lakan both humanizes and makes her more understandable as a character. There is a vulnerable side to her, and if her backstory hadn’t been shown, one wouldn’t know that there was such a side to her otherwise tough exterior.

TRESE (L to R) CARLOS ALAZRAQUI as SANTELMO and SHAY MITCHELL as ALEXANDRA TRESE in episode 101 of TRESE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

How the episodes played out is an aspect of the show that could have had more tweaking done to it. The first two episodes each have Trese investigating two cases (both instances involve cases taken directly out of Murder on Balete Drive). Having two cases per episode didn’t flow too well, as one would often overtake the existence of the other. Had the writers just had all those cases be their own individual episodes, perhaps the beginning of Trese wouldn’t feel as busy. The good news is that from the third episode and on, each one was focused on just one case, which then allowed more room for tension to build up to the season finale.

The English language cast was phenomenal. Mitchell did such a good job bringing Trese to life, Griffin Puatu brought the humor as the lovable Kambal, Jon Jon Briones and Matt King as Hank and Captain Guerrero respectively make for the support that Trese can depend on, and more. While it was a right (and admirable) call to have a predominantly Filipino American cast, it was a little disappointing as to just how little some of the actors, such as Dante Basco and Nicole Scherzinger, were given. Had there not been so much crammed in the first two episodes, perhaps there would have been more for them to do.

Critiques aside, Trese is undoubtedly a binge-able show, which is why it is so irritating that it is only six episodes long. It’s so rare to see a production as high budgeted as it is to come along and bring with it an intricately detailed story featuring folklore from a community that hasn’t gotten as much focus; even with the quantity of Asian and Asian American stories made within the last few years. In the case of both the comic books and the show itself, Trese is truly the beautiful, gory gift that keeps on giving, which is why all eyes need to be on this in order to keep it going – and if that after credits scene in the last episode indicates anything, it’s that there’s still a lot more story to be told.

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