I recently had the great pleasure of reading through the komiks series “Trese,” created by writer Budjette Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo. Having languished for some time in my reading list, I was reminded of it when Netflix announced the comics will be adapted into an animated series next year. It is a creation that is uniquely, undeniably Filipino, set in contemporary Metro Manila. Whenever the local police encounter a case with a whiff of the supernatural, the title character steps in as a consulting detective and puts things to right.
The world-building is inspired and enriched by our own Filipino mythology. The tikbalang clan calls a Makati sky-rise home; the duwende thrive on offerings of Choc Nut; the world-weary main character, whose personal weapon resembles a kris, is flanked by two bodyguard figures whose origins are connected to a Bukidnon war god. The other creepies of our childhood nightmares populate these noir adventures, from the white lady to the manananggal, and we’re welcomed with humorous jabs at Filipino cultural references; a sigil that Trese uses for healing spells is a nod to the Mercury Drug logo, and the famous mall-dwelling taong-ahas of urban legend makes an appearance. The series is at turns playful, at turns dark, as Trese wades through the seedy underbelly of Metro Manila, exposing corruption, abuse and greed, navigating the politics of humans and monsters.
It’s an undeniable source of Filipino pride to have these stories showcased internationally. It’s also an escapist joy because in Trese’s Philippines, the evil aswang is defeatable. Not all endings are happy and many end in death and destruction, but at the center of it all is the belief in balance, which Trese strives to maintain so that all camps are able to coexist peacefully, and innocents are kept from harm.
Not so in our Philippines in 2019, where we started the year with a President who regaled the masses with one of his boyhood confessions, recounting how he sexually assaulted (I won’t mince words) a maid — with no political consequences apart from a short-lived wave of outrage, while his lackeys, the lesser aswang, parrot out their usual repartee of excuses, obfuscation, explanation. We live in an age where the innocent everyman worries about being accused of crime, but the aswang in power can still get elected to office even after conviction for crimes on a grand scale.
Our aswang are of a different kind, resurrected from political deaths, brought back whitewashed despite previous criminal charges, ready to serve — or take advantage of—the public once more. Their powers aren’t fangs but power, money and connections. They are not like Trese’s monsters, because they don’t seem to die; we merely recycle them from one generation to the next, apparently unable to learn from the mistakes of contemporary history.
Our aswang aren’t hidden in the shadows of Balete Drive. We coexist with them and are governed by them, and they remain unaffected by our disquiet and despair. There’s no Trese to subdue them or put murderers in their place, no hero to avenge the deaths of petty criminals or the poor in the landfills and small streets of Metro Manila.
It’s the first week of 2019, and we face the year with a different kind of terror — that of uncertainty. Some things are predictable. We know the President will regurgitate some tirade against some enemy, whether it’s the VP, women in general, the Catholic Church, or something else, and we know that bodies found lifeless in the street will remain part of our day-to-day, but the terror of fearing how far the administration can go, of constitutional change, of an uncomfortable shift to federalism… all lie ahead and there is no recourse, only a bracing for the next blow. Would that we could have our own Trese squad, a local version of the Avengers or some other superhero group to upend evil and impunity. The closest thing we could have would be to choose our own heroes in the 2019 midterm elections. Here’s hoping we don’t just select a new group of aswang to succeed this one.
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