Halfworlds Impressions – Indonesian Myth Collides with Modern Jakarta
Fantasy is a rich genre that seems to be too used to mining the same material – the traditional elves, wizards, vampires, and dragons of traditional Western lore. Whenever creators decide to tap a different well for inspiration, my interest is naturally piqued. First recommended to me by a friend, Halfworlds is an HBO Asia Original series directed by Indonesian director Joko Anwar. As urban fantasy, it melds Indonesian Mythology with the dark grittiness of the modern day, along the lines of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Budjette Tan’s Trese.
Long ago, ancient gods created beings known as the Demit from volcanic fires. Sent into the human world, the Demit possessed supernatural powers and protected humans from those that would prey on them. Among the Demit themselves, a supernatural phenomenon known as “the Gift” bestowed great power to whomever is chosen by the gods.
This period of harmony didn’t last. Hundreds of years ago, an unknown event created a deep rift between the Demit and humans, forcing them to go to war with each other. The humans could only kill Demit with weapons forged from the volcanoes of their birthplace while The Demit retaliated by taking monstrous forms. Though the Demit were powerful, they were limited in number and the war took their toll. Instead, they had decided to blend with human society and the Demit faded into the mists of Indonesian legend. Once protectors, they were now known as Demons to the common folk.
Fastforward to the modern era, the Demit are scattered in number. In Jakarta, a number of Demit are mysterious power players in society, protected by humans dedicated to keeping their existence a secret. There are Demit who have settled peaceful lives in both wealth and squalor while there are those that kill indiscriminately to satiate their bloodlust. Lastly, there are half-breeds, shunned by Demit society. However, the time of the Gift is once again near and the delicate balance between the two worlds will be soon shattered. Caught in the middle of all this is Sarah, an orphaned street artist bothered by her own compulsive drawings that she does not recognize. Sarah and her friends are about to run headfirst on into the complex world of the Demit, where everyone has their own agenda.
As a TV show, I found Halfworlds to be very absorbing. It captured the dark grittiness of the less sparkly portions of Jakarta. The scenes could look like they came straight out of Manila, if the Bahasa language was exchanged for Filipino. Most of the series was filmed at night highlighting even more the idea that this was a world of shadows. Scene transitions also add to the rough and erratic street life that most of the characters have to live through. The show is bilingual with subtitles adding local flavor to the show.
Halfworlds is urban fantasy but it lies more on the low fantasy end of the scale, ala Game of Thrones. In other words, the magic is more behind the scenes compared the character drama. Although the Demit are supposed to be demonic, either a floating head that feasts on unborn fetus or a man on fire, they stay completely in human form, at least so far. The cast is varied, with actors of Malay, Indian, and Chinese descent. Sarah, her boyfriend Coki and her best friend Pinung, portray the rough cynicism of living on the streets. Bandi and Gorga, the leaders of the Demit Council, exude an aura of power and mystery. Their human associates, Juragan and Gusti, struggle with the good of the many and the good of the few.
Another highlight of the show are the fight scenes. The wire-fight scenes are well choreographed with a smattering of slow motion. The personalities of the fighters in the show bleed into their combat styles. Nadia is precise and focused. Marni fights with a ferocity of someone that has something to prove. Tony and Ros are sadists who love to play with their food. Half-breed Barata moves with the burden of the world on his shoulders.
Lastly, beautifully animated intro sequences start off each episode. They help layer light exposition of the history of the world of the Demit. They are most similar to motion comics, with muted earth colors and prominent inking.
Halfworlds is a testament to what can be done with enough creative backing. It’s well paced with intriguing revelations about the world and its characters interspersed between strong character moments and kinetic fight scenes. The diverse multi-ethnic cast brings a gritty realism that makes it feel as if this show could really happen. It really feels like a fusion of a show like Netflix’s Daredevil and a rich IP like Trese. In fact, if anyone out there is brave enough to adapt Trese into an ongoing TV show, Halfworlds is a pretty good comparative baseline. If you want to taste something that’s both different and familiar at the same time, definitely watch Halfworlds on HBO Asia. I am looking forward to watching the rest of the show until it’s season finale.
Catch Halfworlds on HBO Asia. New Episodes are up every Sunday at 10PM. See a more detailed airing schedule here.