Thursday, June 17, 2021

Trese (animated TV series)

Super natural

Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo's supernatural horror comic Trese (Thirteen) has finally been realized on the small screen and by Netflix no less--which is a bit of a mixed blessing.

Netflix has the tendency to lowball their budget for out-of-left-field material (unless you're Martin Scorsese) even if you enjoy a small but fanatic following (I'm looking at you Japan Sinks)--the animation frame rate can be jerky low, the character design a little flat; when you sup with the devil and no long spoon is available be prepared for bitter broth. 

I've also heard comments on the voice dubbing and while fair I don't exactly feel it's a dealbreaker. If synched dialogue and accents prevents one from watching this or that film then what about Italian and Indian cinema (where dubbing and even bad dubbing is a common practice)? What about Welles' low-budget European masterworks? I acknowledge the flaws but refuse to let them keep me from enjoying the aforementioned cinemas, filmmaker, series, not (a crucial condition this) if there's something there worth enjoying. 

That said--Filipino animation on Netflix! With subtitles in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese; audio in Tagalog, French, Spanish, Japanese, and of course English. Philippine folklore displayed practically for the first time on a global streaming platform. 

I'm happy the series wasn't made family-friendly--a few episodes in we're treated to the sight of spilled innards; later Alexandra Trese (Liza Soberano in Filipino, Shay Mitchell in English) pulls out a dagger with serpentine blade and cuts the eyeball out of a corpse, to fix the last image seen by that eyeball onto a piece of cloth. 

The series is not just fantasy-horror; the stories draw from aspects of contemporary Filipino society, acting as both commentary and critique: Alexandra in the first episode hunts a band of renegade aswang (vampires, more or less) who have the backing of the city mayor--yet another local politician employing underworld elements (this time literally) in his private army. The third episode features a sly parody of one of the country's most prestigious celebrities--a 'Nova Aurora,' the Philippines' 'shining star*'--the same time it broods on our unhealthy obsession with fame, youth, beauty. The fifth features zombies--only these zombies bear uncanny resemblance to the unblinking unthinking followers of the real-life mayor, down to the tendency to parrot catchphrases and resort to random violence. Why, this is Metro Manila, nor are we out of it--the horror adds a dank grandeur to the more shadowy corners of an already corrupt corrupting city. 

*(a parody but I suspect not a malicious one; the character is too different (she's an emptyheaded chatterbox, for one, where the real actress is painfully quiet and shy) and meant to make a broader point, not smear the inimitable original

Trese has many antecedents, from Neil Gaiman's Sandman to Mike Mignola's Hellboy to Ghost in the Shell (that elevator ride up the Armanaz building!) to Buffy The Vampire Slayer among others. Interestingly, what makes it unique--its roots in our culture--has in turn inspired those same sources (an issue of Hellboy featuring a manananggal variation; Gaiman at one point endorsed Budjette's indiegogo fundraiser and professed himself a fan of Filipino mythology; Ghost in the Shell is ostensibly set in a fictional Japanese city but is visibly set in Hong Kong and features one of Hong Kong's best-selling beverages, San Miguel Beer**; and the Buffy comic books recently unveiled a Filipino Slayer named Matay (Death)).

**(Popular in Hong Kong (since 1914!) but originating from (and still owned by) the San Miguel Corporation)

Gaiman may be the first major figure in horror literature to acknowledge our mythology but I'm guessing our stories are not totally unfamiliar to the world. Remember that Filipino workers have spread globally and functioned as babysitter to many a middle or upper class family; remember that many a babysitter has sat by her charge's bedside weaving stories from her own childhood, of the aswang and tikbalang and tiyanak and manananggal. Pure speculation, but how many kids in the United States or Canada or Europe or Hong Kong or Singapore or Saudi Arabia have stayed up late at night thinking of this or that creature scratching at his windowsill, seeking to come in? How many might watch this series with interest, maybe to relive a vivid childhood memory?

Visually the artwork is poised between anime and the kind of moody fare DC Comics through Warner Studios specializes in (and scanning his credits I find Trese director/producer Jay Oliva directed a decent adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns). The series does well with long shots that depict Manila as a cross between Gotham City and Los Angeles 2019 and New Port City 2029 with the occasional recognizable landmark (The Light Rail Transit system; the Meralco Building; Muntinglupa Prison. I'll also admit to often driving down Balete Drive at night though I've yet to see a White Lady, much less pick one up). Other locations such as the entrance to Muntinglupa Prison feel less impressive--but what can one do? Manila by night evokes many noirish images; the prison sequence is in broad daylight, and probably needs the gritty matter-of-fact realism of live action to help sell the story. 

But the series feels like more than a creature feature, or the mere sum of its many influences--when Alexandra first confronts Senor Armanaz head of the Armanaz organization it's not as some lowly gumshoe but as the proud if diminutive daughter of Lakan Anton Trese (Eugene Adalia in Filipino). She is both heir to her father's occult powers and enforcer of the balance Anton forged between humans and the rest of the Underworld--a balance that grows increasingly precarious as the series progresses. 

And just in time for Father's Day this coming Sunday (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the series!) we learn--from the big bad Datu Talagbusao himself (Bryan Encarnacion for the Filipino dub)--that Anton isn't the noble idealist Alexandra thought him to be. It's an educational journey into one's own history and I suppose a necessary one--every son or daughter adoring or not should learn his or her father had feet of clay--but does make Alexandra's final burst of strength more believable. She had to sacrifice something and in this case it's her innocence with regards to her father. We all lose our illusions eventually and grow up.  

I like it; for all its flaws it's an intriguing taste of the kind of worldbuilding Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo have been doing since 2005 (the series is a rather crowded summarization of the first three volumes). I don't expect the animation to improve with succeeding episodes, not unless this becomes a hit, but if the writers focus more on the intricacies and nuances of the world and the characters inhabiting it rather than on standard-issue anime fight sequences--who knows? The mixed blessing might not be so mixed after all.


quentintarantado said...

It has many good things going for it, but I think the way it tells the story is clunky. There are many 'huh?' moments and 'why did that happen?' moments. I think the story could have been told more clearly.
I read issue one of the comics, they are clearly suppose to be individual stories. The story arc was added in the animation.
I would like to see more, but I would also want to see them improve.

Noel Vera said...

Good points, and hopefully they do address them. That said, Maasaki Yuasa's Japan Sinks also had similar problems. May be a Netflix effect--they give you only so much money and so much time to tell your story and it shows.

Anonymous said...

Alex Fortune aka Alex Trece comicbook story by Budgette Tan.