Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: Halfworlds

  • Directed by Joko Anwar
  • Starring Salvita Decorte, Nathan Hartono, Bront Palarae, Aimee Saras, Tara Basro, Ario Bayu, Arifin Putra, Reza Rahadian, Adinia Wirasti
  • Series premiere November 29, 2015 on HBO Asia. Season 1 finale January 10, 2016

Southeast Asia's monster mythology and ancient spiritual beliefs are vividly drawn upon in the HBO Asia Original Production Halfworlds, which began airing its first season on HBO in Asia last month.

With all eight half-hour episodes directed by Indonesia’s leading filmmaker Joko Anwar, Halfworlds is set in the shadowy back alleys of Jakarta, where there exists a parallel world of ancient blade-wielding tattooed demons. Known as demits, they pose as humans, live alongside us and feed on our blood. Just as our own world appears on the brink of uncertainty, the realm of the demits is also at a crossroads, with a supernatural event known as “the Gift” fast approaching, and causing much anxiety.

It’s the most ambitious production for Singapore-based HBO Asia and its partner studio facilities just across the Strait, on Indonesia’s Batam Island. There, in a complex of soundstages carved out of a malarial mangrove, is where they made the adventure movie Dead Mine in 2012, the Australian-co-produced series Serangoon Road in 2012 and last year’s supernatural family drama Grace.

Halfworlds is their best yet, judging from the first two episodes HBO Asia provided for reviews.

And that’s thanks to Anwar, who co-wrote the series with Collin Chang. The director of a cult-hit, critically acclaimed string of film-noir-inspired thrillers, such as Dead Time: Kala (2007) and The Forbidden Door (2009), Anwar has an uncanny knack for combining moody lighting, highly saturated colors, comic-book-style framing and richly imagined characters in compelling ways.

At the center of the story is a young street artist named Sarah (newcomer Salvita Decorte). Like young Bruce Wayne in the Batman comics, Sarah’s destiny started when her parents were murdered. Unlike Wayne, Sarah is not rich. She has no butler nor a mansion. She squats in a flat but has a wealth of friends, including her tattoo-artist best pal Pinung (Aimee Saras) and young indie rocker boyfriend Coki (Nathan Hartono). They gather in a watering hole known as The Moth.

Sarah has been understandably haunted by her parents’ deaths, as reflected by the disturbing and graphic images that are alongside the tourist sketches in her portfolio. Like any other crime procedural, she has a “murder wall” of her drawings. Among the monsters she’s illustrated is the palasik, a female demon consisting of a floating head and entrails, similar to a well-known Thai ghoul, the krasue. There are also various figures lurking in the shadows, keeping an eye on Sarah, who they believe to be the “chosen one”, and this gives her a feeling of unease.

It’s those darker figures who make Halfworlds utterly watchable, and it helps that HBO Asia has tapped into Indonesia’s most-trusted film export, the smash-hit martial-arts franchise The Raid, to help complete that world. Among them are The Raid 2 alums Arifin Putra as a mysteriously handsome fellow in a hood who is dogging Sarah, and Alex Abbad as another troublemaking demit figure.

Other characters include veteran Malaysian actor Bronte Paralae as Detective Gusti, a weary lawman who has made the demits his personal beat. His intentions are unclear, as he appears to be under the thumb of demit head honcho Juragan (Anwar film vet Ario Bayu). There’s a killer female demon (Adinia Wirasti) with a cool bloody scene every episode. And Reza Rahadian and Tara Basro are a colorful demit couple.

Rahadian in particular has a stand-out sequence when he and his ladyfriend find a victim in a bar. He puts their mark at ease by posing as a nerd, with shaky voice, glasses, a turtleneck and scruffy beard to complete the look. As he lets the other guy steal his woman, Rahadian slowly sheds his quietly unassuming persona and plunges his blade into the guy. Soon, shots of blood are served up all around.

The action is among the highlights, even though it’s not on the scale of The Raid (after all, this is HBO Asia, not Game of Thrones). Among the stand-out scenes is a guy getting sliced in half. And there’s a cool fight in a men’s room, where the electric hand dryer blows a demon’s shirt, revealing his family tattoo. A knock-down-drag-out results in smashed bathroom fixtures and a load of red painting the walls.

Further eye candy is provided by a graphic-novel opening sequence, which is different each episode and furthers illustrates the mythical world of the demits.

While Halfworlds is a cult hit waiting to happen, just how this HBO Asia series will translate in other territories is unclear. Director Anwar offers one view, with a funny scene of a foreigner hipster getting a tattoo in Pinung’s parlor. Seems he made unwanted advances on the pretty tattoo artist and she decided to teach him a lesson in Bahasa Indonesia.

“I can’t wait to show my friends back home,” he says as he checks out the newly inked script between his shoulderblades.

“Nasi goreng,” the tattoo reads. “Fried rice,” reads the subtitle.

See also:

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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