The sight of a corpse-eating spirit creeping out of a dark alley isn’t unusual in Alexandra Trese’s world. Premiered on Netflix earlier this summer, the six-episode series follows Alexandra as she tries to enforce the pact her family made with the paranormal underworld that Manila city dwellers have no clue about. The English version of the series features some heavy-hitting voice actors such as Shay Mitchell as Alexandra herself, Manny Jacinto, Darren Criss, and Nicole Scherzinger. The Tagalog version features Filipino American Liza Soberano. From somewhat friendly elves to shapeshifters known as aswang, no day is ever the same for Alexandra.
How the fan-favorite komik landed on Netflix
Published in 2005 as a komiks series, “Trese” has a title character “inspired by wanting to create a detective character for a Manila story,” shared co-creator and writer Budjette Tan. Following Alexandra, as she solves the supernatural mysteries underlying the crimes in the city, the horror-themed mythological series soon became popular among Filipinos for its unique storytelling and determination to have Philippine culture at the heart of it.
After a friend recommended the award-winning series to her, executive producer Tanya Yuson spent 10 years trying to find a home for the franchise before she pitched it to Netflix Anime. In 2018, Netflix unveiled that they would be adapting the komiks into an anime, and the show became one of the first major series from the Philippines available on the platform outside of Asia in 2021.
The most refreshing thing about “Trese” is its persistence to keep the mysterious spirit of the komiks alive by bringing traditional Filipino folklore to life in our modern world. Unfortunately, many contemporary shows and movies are told through a Western lens, a point of view that misses out on the nuances of Asian culture by inaccurately portraying our cultures and harmfully exoticizing our people and traditions. Sadly, “Trese” falls into this category, but the typical English-speaking audience may not even realize it.
“Trese,” the komiks, gave Pinoys a new perspective on horror, and the Netflix series amplified that mission on a global, more accessible scale. In the Netflix adaptation, monsters remain gangly, revolting creatures who roam the busy streets of Manila in pursuit of trouble, revenge, and something a little more perplexing than the two combined. The art style is reminiscent of old, horror-themed cartoons, but its overarching theme of supernatural noir emphasizes the more mature and serious topics the show dives into.
In one episode, Alexandra answers the call of an actress haunted by the sound of a child crying. What she finds is a tiyanak, a vampiric toddler or infant-looking monster. In Filipino mythology, a tiyanak is the spirit of a child unborn due to the pregnant mother’s passing. In the show, however, the tiyanak is the fading actress’s aborted child on a murderous rampage to draw attention and love from its mother. At the episode’s conclusion, the tiyanak and the woman reunite in a comforting embrace, a trap set by the woman to violently kill the tiyanak by stabbing the surprised child monster over and over again, making the audience wonder who the real monster is. But those in the know will immediately recognize the covert implications of this plot. In a country where abortion is illegal, the depiction of the actress as a cruel and selfish woman, who chose not to have a child to protect her career, sends a clear anti-abortion message.
But who is “Trese” really for?
The “Trese” komiks themselves weren’t political, choosing instead to build on Tan’s creative and intriguing mysteries that intertwined traditional Filipino folklore with the beautiful and dynamic metropolis of Manila. Despite writer Tan’s original intentions with the komiks, the Netflix series carries a different tone and continues harmful political legacies.
Throughout the episodes, “Trese” underwhelms in its attempt to accurately present the complexity of the social issues that affect Filipinos in the archipelago. The show writers fail to spotlight the distinct horrors Filipinos face, especially the multiple humanitarian crises currently plaguing the country. Unfortunately, the story building cannot grasp the true monstrosity of living in the island country’s capital.
In another episode, Alexandra calls drug users “sinners,” a politically charged and ignorant allusion to events currently plaguing Filipinos. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, uses the same term as grounds for the ongoing “war against drugs,” a campaign that has imprisoned and killed thousands without due cause.
The soldiers leading the slaughter of civilians in this real-life war are the Philippine National Police. The anime depicts a tension between the police and the people they arrest and surveil, similar to the distrust found here in the United States. While these interactions feel true to real life, the officers are written into redemption arcs with Alexandra working in conjunction and side-by-side with the police force. Alexandra is called in to solve mysteries that the average Manila citizen needs to be protected from, but in real life, keeping civilians in the dark is a common tactic used by the government to continue to abuse Pinoy activists’ human rights and outspoken progressive politicians.
Again and again, the Netflix show writers perpetuate the government’s propaganda and a conservative stance through their efforts to cater to a Western gaze. Trying to deliver a message to non-Pinoy audiences worldwide causes many nuances to be lost in the show’s portrayal of Filipino mythology.
Either there is an unspoken understanding that the audience flocking to watch “Trese” is already familiar with Alexandra’s underworld or the show writers chose to dismiss the complexities of Filipino mythology to address these social issues. Folks were lured to the series because of the concept that Filipino mythology could be horrific and psychologically mind-bending in a modern-day setting. Still, the scariest part of the series is how it delivers uncontextualized political commentary and misrepresentation of the current-day social problems afflicting Filipinos to viewers worldwide.
Despite its faults, “Trese” opens the doors for more
Although the media platform has just started to embrace Southeast Asian stories while being embraced by the audiences in the Philippines (just think of the Pinoys who love to watch Lucifer), Netflix has a ways to go. “Trese” may have proved that we have our own stories to tell, but it ultimately failed to depict accurately the very issues the show wanted to center. Because the Filipino nation and its people continue to grapple with grim societal problems, disruption is necessary to unveil the true monsters in Manila — those with enormous, monumental political power.
Filipinos at home and around the world will continue to crave new, ethnically empowering narratives that are authentic and complex in their portrayal of Pinoy life and culture. For years now, the people of the Philippines have been pushing back against a government that only exacerbates inequality, harnesses oppression and fear, and continues legacies of corruption. So as Hollywood begins to recognize the potential of Filipino storytelling, we can only hope that future projects reflect — and project to the world — a country hungry for social and political change.
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
“Trese” premiered in June 2021. The story of “Trese” fuses Philippine horror mythology with dark, graphic storytelling. It follows Alexandra Trese, a mysterious detective who deals with crimes of supernatural origin, mainly occurring in the capital region of the Philippines. You can catch “Trese” on Netflix.
Image credits: Netflix