Netflix’s animated show Trese hits the ground running with its portrayal of a Tikbalang, a Filipino folklore figure with both horse and human physical features. The show’s modern take on a drag race, which roars through the streets of Manila, feels like a scene out of a Fast and Furious movie. But it also encapsulates the mischievous, wild character of the Tikbalang without compromising its original myths, which is surprising, considering the series’ contemporary lens. The Tikbalang, like the other mythical beings in Trese, are treated with the utmost respect. Their stories are framed to be accessible to audiences around the world. Portrayals of folklore and mythological figures from Roman, Greek, and Egyptian pantheons in the West have been popularized by the visual and print media for years, but Filipino folklore has never hit the United States in a form like Trese.
The six-episode horror-thriller series follows Alexandra Trese, Manila’s lakan babaylan, or guardian and healer. She acts as the bridge between the worlds of humanity and the supernatural, enforcing the accords that were set to keep balance between the two worlds. She also investigates crimes of the supernatural world, specifically when the former begins to bleed into the natural world. The show finds her in medias res, as malevolent beings threaten to tip the balance between the two worlds sideways. It’s a violent and gritty show that modernizes Filipino bedtime stories, and puts a fantasy gloss over the socioeconomic, political, and ultimately moral complexities of Manila, and the Philippines as a whole.
The series adapts the award-winning komiks of the same name by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo. When the series started off in 2005 as a self-published, black-and-white abstract monthly series, it was populated by Tan’s real-life experience with a ghost in his house, bedtime stories of the aswang, and American pop-culture influences from comic books such as Batman, Hellboy, and Sandman, sci-fi shows Karl Kolchak: The Nightstalker, The X-Files, and CSI, and anime like Ghost in the Shell. The komik took a magical-realist look at Manila, filled with superstitions that were engulfing the creators daily. In 2018, Netflix officially greenlit an animated version of the series.
The show is heavily backed by Filipino creators, with Tan and Baldisimo as showrunners, and Filipino-American Jay Oliva of Justice League Dark as executive producer and director. The entire English-language and Tagalog language cast is also of Filipino descent. The cast includes Shay Mitchell of Pretty Little Liars and Filipino celebrity Liza Soberano, as the two versions of Alexandra Trese. Darren Criss of Glee, Dante Basco of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Manny Jacinto of The Good Place take roles as well. The Filipino talent working through every aspect of the series shows through, from Trese’s coat being inspired by national hero José Rizal to the accents, popular slang, tribal music, and visual aesthetics of the city. Even the street food and brand names are authentic.
The series is captivating, with compelling Filipino folklore storytelling framed by supernatural criminal investigations. Each investigation works in tandem with a central throughline that blends into the shadows of each episode, until it is finally brought into full daylight. Character development for Trese and others creeps in as the stakes run apocalyptically high. Trese is a strong leader, a female protagonist whose intensity and command of her role between and in both worlds brings an unusual sense of seriousness and resolve.
Though the show revolves around horror and crime, there are lighter moments to balance the heavier, visually darker ones. Fight scenes bring attention to each character’s strengths and weaknesses effectively, but the show also emphasizes that not every problem requires a violent resolution. Visually, Manila is hauntingly beautiful and chaotic. The compelling mystery behind the origin of Alexandra’s bodyguards, and her intriguing, multifaceted allies makes it difficult to pick a favorite character out of the long list of mythical creatures and humans.
These mythical creatures will be familiar to a Filipino audience: They appear in bedtime tales Filipino families tell to spook their children, and in school lessons, as ways to intrigue and inform children about different cultural aspects throughout the Philippines. Superstition and fear of the supernatural run high to this day in the Philippines, where it’s common for people to report real-life supernatural incidents, or seek spiritual diagnoses. Creatures like the aswang beings predate colonization in the Philippines, and were once attributes of pre-colonial religions.
Trese uses myths like the White Lady of Balete Drive to set the tone for the series, driving home the distinctive take the komiks began. Creatures like the Tikbalang or the dwarf-like nuno sa punso bring to life a commonality between humanity and nature that’s been typically used to promote respect and care for the environment. Seeing nuno sa punso’s character as a useful information-providing resource gives it a refreshing new complexity, and draws a compelling analogy about what humanity can learn from nature. The aswang’s criminal activity and political involvement similarly adds a humanizing element to a historically terrifying creature of the night.
The character Talagbusao is a regionally specific figure in the Philippines. Unlike the flesh-eating aswang or nuno sa punso, it isn’t popularly known throughout the country — it’s hidden in the folklore of the Mindanao region. Similarly, Santelmo isn’t known countrywide, but its popularity is slowly growing as interest in Filipino folklore grows. Some of these characters take their distinct looks directly from folklore, while others have been updated and adapted, via their business choices and illegal activities, including black-market organ-selling and that opening drag race. The Tikbalang’s leader sets the tone for this mix of old and new, as he works from the top floor of a high rise — with a forest inside it.
Like so much new animation, Trese is styled after Japanese anime, but it’s the first animated series from BASE Entertainment, a Jakarta/Singapore-based entertainment studio. It’s also the first Filipino-focused animated series made for a global audience. And it’s uncompromising in its cultural specificity. The West often associates the Philippines with images of tropical paradise, but Trese presents it as a complex world filled with police brutality, corruption, and economic disparity. While the show can’t offer blanket solutions for these issues, they’re as culturally accurate as the show’s other details. And they address present Filipino politics sadly, but with small glimmers of hope, emphasizing that good people will continue to fight every night for those who cannot.
Using aspects of Filipino culture with varying degrees of subtlety, Trese balances moments of joy with necessary violence, without defaulting to stereotypes. The narrative looks deep into Filipino folklore with integrity, and provides Filipino viewers a chance to look beyond the evils they were raised to fear, while educating other viewers about supernatural traditions from around the world. At the same time, the show emphasizes that not every evil is supernatural. This is a show made by Filipinos for Filipinos, but its creators are more than willing to share their culture with the world — if it dares to walk into the darkness.
The six-episode first season of Trese is now streaming on Netflix.
[Ed. note: The author of this article is distantly related to Trese voice actor Liza Soberano, but has never interacted with her, and that connection was not a factor in this review.]
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