STARRED MESSAGES / CRITICISM / REVIEW
Published July 6, 2021
Trese: a possible allegory
by Jojo Soria de Veyra
ERE’S what Visayan poet Kristine Ong Muslim posted on her Facebook page last 14 June after she watched the 12 June-released Trese, the first Filipino- and Filipino-American-produced animated television series for Netflix, which was much-hyped, and already celebrated as a national pride even before its launch, as a possible allegory of the ills in Philippine politics:
“Pero okay lang yan, friends. Like the imperialist monster Ari Agbayani, Trese's garbage politics has limited cultural impact. It is junk food created for an elite viewership, only for people who have Netflix, reaffirming their gross right-wing worldviews on women. It helps sustain the otherwise unsustainable fantasy involving the valorization of irredeemably fascist agents like Filipino cops. I haven't read (the comics) because I realized a long time ago that I am not its target audience. I have outgrown my taste for Trese-like rudimentary writing where aswangs and folkloric creatures are thoughtlessly demonized from beginning to end---that's just too easy to do. Touches a nerve, too, because CIA propaganda used this narrative against us, against the Huk liberation army. I was a Lovecraft fan, for example. I think we can consume problematic things and not be blind and unthinking when we do.”
A quick critique of Trese by poet Kristine Ong Muslim (click here for an alternative access to the post)
You are free to agree or disagree with some or all of what Muslim stated in this post of hers. But we are endorsing it here as a quick critique that might serve as a perfect accompanying item for a blog by Nic Nangit in policefilestonite.net, for a review in Rappler, and for a video we are presenting later below, which is of a discussion on the TV series in question between stalwart contemporary Pinoy comics creators Josel Nicolas, Apol Sta. Maria, and Adam David.
Before we give you the video, however, allow us to insert here at length what we ourselves think of this topic.
YOU see, the tales and characters in or from folklore can both be a blessing and a bane to contemporary usage/appropriation. Remember that, like the larger myths that envelop folklore, even the littlest of folk stories have at one time been used as tools of power for the suppression of certain voices within the family or the village, worse, for the casting out and, at worst, the beheading of these voices' owners. Remember, too, that what we in our time proudly refer to as our myths (proudly, because worn in a positive nationalist light) at one time may have been recurrent features of an erstwhile oppressive religion. So, what are we saying?
We’re saying that folk stories, though they can be used as iconic metaphors for a contemporary flag-waving fantasy story, placing them as either positive or negative presences in a people’s living narrative, would have uncertain results among contemporary readers in a given locus. The reason for this uncertainty is simple: even though in our time such a narrative would be placed in a category or stratum we would refer to as fantasy, the contemporary creators of this narrative can only be half-aware of the resultant contexts of its consequent metaphors. It's understandable, really, given the fact that one cannot be certain whether one’s readers would duly approach these elements as of past superstition or as still-living truths and not mere tropes for fantasy litt.
Here's the two-part article for policefilestonite.net by Nic Nangit, for instance, titled "Na-Onse ng Trese" (dated 13 and 14 June) which tries to counter from a quasi-purist angle Trese's appropriation of a number of Philippine folklore icons:
As the blog would imply in its last sentence, although a Filipino reader may approach the folkloric elements in Trese as equal in rank with their realistic fellows inhabiting the same space in the narrative, i.e., as elements that reader would actually still (half-)believe in, rendering this reader as one to be seriously reckoned with, . . . there would mostly be the type of Netflix viewer who would appreciate the storyteller’s intent with these elements as for a mere process of bawdlerizing erstwhile-serious (erstwhile-sacrosanct) tropes for either a comic-entertainment or otherwise allegorical purpose. In short, under such a divided culture as ours, a storyteller would find it difficult to manage each of the audience-parties’ reactions to the story just crafted, difficult, that is, unless the storyteller chooses to take a postmodernist meta stance on everything, hovering above one’s various readers as well as oneself as his/her story unfolds.
With regards to the allegory, there’s actually this problem with any such allegorizing intent in fantasy litt: often a part of the readers of a fantasy oeuvre would regard the narrative setting of the work as belonging to an entirely other world, a world a universe away from where these readers are presently placed. To these readers, everything that is happening inside the story is an escape, whether advertently designed as so or not, to a place where one can wallow in some guilty pleasure watching people get hanged, drawn and quartered. Such a regard is definitely not an allegorizing one.
But then there would be that other part of one’s readership who would approach one's narrative indeed as an allegory, regardless (again) of the author's intent. These would be those readers who would force themselves to connect all the dots, in the service of completing what they think this "allegory" or allegory-seeming is an allegory of or for. This bunch of readers would be rare, admittedly. Rarer still would be that bunch who would feel certain about their allegorical reading, ignoring for instance the announcements of a certain author of some Lord of the Rings sort of narrative that his oeuvre is actually an allegory of Catholics behaving like Orcs.
Let’s continue on this question concerning the allegory:
Dear reader, the allegory is almost always a closed text, isn’t it? A closed text, as Umberto Eco would call it, inside the structure of which the allegorization is already announced. In the case of allegorical paintings, the announcement is often coursed via the title. In cinema or pop music, the allegorization is often announced in paid interviews.
Now, of course, readers must be cautioned from the possibility of confusing the allegorical piece with the emblem composition, such as that in the composition of flags. They must be made to remember that the allegory is often a complex brew of metaphorical specters, as it were, with each element possessing an ideological spirit that is felt within, unlike a set of emblems whose colors and shapes would each there be acting as a mere mnemonic or stand-in for an emotion that is really not there. . . .
Let us stop here. Having laid out all of the above basic argument, simply allow us now to ask this question: is Trese an allegory? Or, to be more specific, is it a political allegory?
Was it an allegory when the comics’ first issue came out four years into Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government? Could its television series or anime-inspired animated adaptation be sporting a political allegorical intent, too, four years (+1 pandemic year) into Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial administration, one where even a Liza Soberano (character Trese's Tagalog voice) has been red-baited by a general in Duterte's cabinet? Or would it be a tall order for you to approach it even as a simple kind of allegory, given that it might actually require a Roland Barthes out of everyone, Barthes being that fellow who was able to turn an Emile Zola war novel into an erotic oeuvre, and able to justify his funny-but-serious reading without loopholes?
We saw one such allegory-guessing approach towards Trese in
when the writer wrote this: “The supernatural beings here can be criminal or misunderstood, righteous or deceitful, but no single faction is entirely good or bad. Evil can come from anywhere. Even Trese herself isn’t exempt from this. The show is still too hesitant to write her as a full-fledged antihero, but it does acknowledge that Trese’s job as arbiter means she also ends up protecting those directly responsible for institutional violence.”
Now, we hope Hofileña's approach would hold up to the end. For can all the political realities and context-ridden art-historical elements inserted into Trese’s narrative (Basilio and Crispin, for instance) contribute to a cohesive thesis about the series?
On that, here’s where fantasy litt differs from . . . you ready? . . . magic realism or, say, the parable (read now, please, our brief review that gave a thumb-up to the Netflix-available Sweet Tooth's tight parable contrasting with Trese's vague direction: click here):
YOU see, often, in political terms, fantasy art/litt as an allegorical statement would come off as a sort of (cowardly) disguise, i.e. as a compound of hidden codes, composed as if its author were living inside a repressive regime and is addressing an audience of like-minded regime oppositors who are the only ones able to decode the author’s mysterious codex. But of course fantasy art/litt would not always strike readers as an allegorical statement. In fact, more often fantasy art/litt would be read as an aesthetic exercise in entertaining bourgeois pleasures, including humorous pleasures involving Choc Nut-loving duwendes, even if it may also have comments here and there about certain political realities or may advance here and there subtle political standpoints. It would even be more pro-bourgeois if its inserted political statements lean right-of-centerly (advertently or not), as Muslim’s reading of certain imageries in Trese argues they do.
Magic realism, though, is not fantasy litt. Despite its magical spices, it is still realism. The fantastic insertions in its narration almost always act as no more and no less than hyperbolic presentations of what would otherwise be realistic occurrences in the society the storyteller is trying to realistically/naturalistically/journalistically present.
So there. That's our piece on Trese qua allegory or not. Now we give you the discussion between the three members of Another Green World:
There you have it. But, if you did indeed love a lot about Trese more than hated some items in it, don’t be down. For as if echoing something that the three said, Rappler’s Hofileña also wrote: “Let it be clear right from the beginning that Netflix’s Trese deserves a second season – and not just so it can improve on all the things it gets right (and wrong) in these first six episodes.”
And in this next season, perhaps we, the viewers, might already have the poet's sense to “consume problematic things and not be blind and unthinking when we do.” [d]