Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Halfworlds. Not seen the show? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1 here.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Superficially, the second season of the HBO Asia series Halfworlds (exclusively on Shudder in the UK) is half a world away from the first. Ekachai Uekrongthram (Beautiful Boxer, Skin Trade) replaces Joko Anwar as director – although Colin Chang retains his credit as series creator and writer. The setting is Bangkok, Thailand, rather than Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a whole new cast of characters – although Tony (Reza Rahadian) and the Halfbreed Barata (Arifin Putra), drifters in the first season, both wander into this fresh narrative, in search of solutions to their own erotic problems.
Despite these differences, the similarities are just as striking. We are still, as before, following a demonic demimonde of immortals who live in the shadows of the human world, and occasionally interact with mortals – only this time they are known locally as Peesaj instead of Demit. The immortals are still divided into factions and engaged in endless power play, as they struggle to survive in a world where they will never truly fit – and they are still puzzling their way through amorous relationships with each other, or with mortals. And while the Gift is no longer a driving force behind the story, as it was in the first season, there is a different (yet similar) macguffin – a cursed Kris – that various characters are now pursuing for their own ends.
There are once again safe places where the immortals can be themselves without fear of human interference – whether the gated compound of Poi S (essentially an illicit marketplace and seedy nightclub, lorded over by David Asavanond’s Charlie), or the Citadel (a derelict factory building on the Bangkok outskirts, ruled first by Teresa Daley’s Yao, and then by Jake Macapagal’s Kaprey), or a rumoured idyll called the Haven (which, at least for this season, turns out to be something of a red herring). Once again, a mortal human – this time, the terminally ill Thai-American researcher Juliet (Tia Tavee) – entangles herself in immortal affairs, and falls in love with the non-human, top-knotted Fyter (Peem Jaiyen), who, yes, is a fighter. Once again, there are modern-day characters whose backstories, spanning centuries, are conveyed, in part, by animated prologues to each episode and through flashback sequences (chiefly to significant events in the 80s).
Perhaps all these recombinant variations of elements from the first season do not matter. After all, the notion that history repeats itself is a key theme of the story, as Peesaj characters question the point of an existence, which is repeatedly recycled with no real notion of progress, and where the one salvation – love – is a punishable taboo, or short-lived, or both. As the narrative keeps switching between 1985 and the present, we notice that essentially the same story – of sibling rivalry, doomed romance, inhuman torment, and the transfer of corrupting power – is being told and retold, potentially ad infinitum, if the immortals don’t all kill each other first. Here, nothing is ever actually resolved, but merely rehashed and reincarnated, with the symmetries between these different iterations serving as an aesthetically pleasing substitute for anything like closure. Or maybe that will come in the third season, towards which the final scenes here seem directed.
Other changes to the original series of Halfworlds, however, unfortunately make all the difference. This second season has much less graphic sex and blood than the first – possibly as a reflection of the shift in cultural sensibilities that comes with the translocation of events to Thailand. Accordingly, the story feels altogether more bland and anodyne – something which is not helped by the replacement of sensationalism with soap-style melodrama and some rather flat performances from the pretty cast. All these problems are accentuated by the decision to make each of these eight episodes 15 minutes longer than the half-hour episodes of the original, ensuring that the narrative, which (arguably by design) goes nowhere, also feels unnecessarily drawn out, padded – samey, even.
If Juliet is on a quest to know what it feels like to experience eternity, Halfworlds Season 2 leaves the viewer too with an approximate impression of time standing still. Here is hoping that if this series continues, the next instalments will be zippier, punchier and more pointed.
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