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Review: “Halfworlds” Was HBO Asia’s First Home-Grown Fantasy Epic

"Halfworlds" marks an important step for HBO in localizing its original series for the Asian market.

By , 14 Jan 20 15:02 UTC
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Courtesy of HBO Asia.

The first season of Halfworlds premiered on HBO Asia in 2015, and it was a very ambitious undertaking from the outset. Joko Anwar, Indonesia’s preeminent auteur filmmaker, directed all eight episodes of season one; Joko Anwar also co-wrote the series with Collin Chang. In the US, HBO is a well-established hub for top quality dramas and sweeping fantasy epics. But prior to the debut of Halfworlds, its Asian subsidiary never produced and developed a major series entirely in-house (its two previous series had been co-productions).

An International Production

Halfworlds’ first season was a ratings success, leading to a quick order for a second season (which moved from Indonesia to Thailand, sans Joko Anwar). A third season, which will be set in the Philippines, is now in production. The eight episode first season creates a sprawling fantasy world, drawing on a dizzying array of Indonesian myth, lore, and folktales. 

If the world the show builds is sprawling, then the production behind it was no less so. 

The first season was developed and produced by Singapore’s HBO Asia, and was shot at Infinite Studios on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam, a special economic zone created by the government of Indonesia to encourage joint investment projects just like this one. Joko Anwar was brought on to direct and co-write, and the cast is drawn from around the region, featuring all the Joko Anwar regulars like Tara Basro and Ario Bayu. The international nature of the production is perhaps best exemplified by the casting of Indonesia-born, Singapore-based pop idol Nathan Hartono, with Halfworlds going out of its way to showcase his singing talents before turning him into a zombie. 

Courtesy of HBO Asia.

An Indonesian Story

While the show’s financing and production required cross-border flows of investment and talent, the story it tells is indisputably an Indonesian one. What Joko Anwar and Collin Chang were trying to do with Halfworlds was take a broad sampling of local myths, legends, and ghost stories; and turn them into a sweeping fantasy narrative that local audiences in Southeast Asia could relate to. In some sense, the vastness of the show’s ambition trips it up, as Halfworlds condenses centuries of folklore spanning a huge swath of territory into an eight episode arc. But the sheer nerve required to take on such a project, particularly as HBO Asia’a first fully in-house production, is admirable. 

The story revolves around Sarah (Salvita Decorte), playing a fairly standard Chosen One archetype who begins to discover she is a critical link between the human world and a previously unknown mythical underworld of demons and spirits known as demits. Sarah is a starving street artist who lives in a surprisingly well-lit abandoned warehouse in Jakarta; her parents died under murky circumstances during the riots of 1998, which is a real historical event. As with any Hero’s Journey, she possesses a mysterious power that can save the world but has to be coaxed into accepting this responsibility by friends and newfound allies after a number of setbacks. 

The plot is therefore pretty vanilla. Curiously, so are the fight scenes which suffer from a pronounced lack of sizzle. It seems to me like this area may have been a learning experience for Joko Anwar, because the hand-to-hand combat scenes in last year’s Gundala really popped and showed huge improvement in terms of fight choreography. But the real appeal of Halfworlds, in my opinion, is all in the world-building. 

The scale is vast, perhaps impossibly so. In eight half-hour episodes, Halfworlds attempts to create a complex world inhabited by different demons and spirits drawn from Indonesian lore, but have recognizable counterparts in many parts of Southeast Asia. The pantheon of demits reads a bit like a game of Magic: The Gathering, each with their own unique abilities, weaknesses, and personalities. There are the small, mischievous tuyul who attack people from the shadows; the kuntilanak, a “blood thirsty she-demon” as the show puts it; a pelesit from Sumatran folklore who eats babies; genderuwa, a beast or spirit that can take human form most often associated with the island of Java. 

In order to streamline the unwieldy task of introducing all these demons, along with a very complex mythology about how they came to live in the shadows of the human world, Halfworlds uses nicely animated interstitials before each episode that explain the nature and background of a particular demit or plot point. This is really smart because it is an economical way of visually introducing a huge amount of vital information without having the characters constantly spout exposition.

Courtesy of HBO Asia.

The Gamble Pays Off

HBO Asia took a gamble with Halfworlds – and it paid off. The show is a clear attempt to create content that will resonate with local audiences. Game of Thrones is loosely based on the War of the Roses and European history; it’s only fitting that HBO Asia should spin out fantasy yarns that are firmly rooted in the history and folklore of Asia. Subsequent seasons will explore the mythology of Thailand and the Philippines, and the success of Halfworlds led to the creation of an anthology series that delves into local ghost stories and traditions called Folklore (the first episode of which was directed by Joko Anwar). 

Halfworlds also tracks with the development of Joko Anwar’s filmography since the beginning of his career – he has consistently produced films and series that are steeped in the symbols and myths of Indonesia and the region, and has acknowledged that producing content for local audiences is important to him. As Southeast Asia continues to enjoy rapid economic growth and increased consumer spending power, making shows specifically for domestic audiences is a strategy that is likely to keep paying dividends both as a way of promoting local culture and for the studios’ bottom lines. 

Want to hear what Joko Anwar has to say about “Halfworlds”? Check out our interview with Joko Anwar here!

This article is part of a series that will take a critical look at the work of Indonesian director Joko Anwar, with a focus on the ways in which he has used film to promote Indonesian mythology and explore social issues. 

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