At the head of the first (and every other) episode of Halfworlds, the clunking sound of television static can be heard starting up. It’s the familiar sonic ident to any production from HBO, except that this time the text onscreen reads ‘HBO Asia Originals’, heralding a hybrid production caught between two worlds and two cultures.
This impression of intermediacy is quickly reinforced on a number of levels. There is the way that characters rapidly switch between English and Indonesian dialogue (the setting is contemporary metropolitan Jakarta). There is the mixing of media, with the live action that dominates, occasionally punctuated by animated sections – the latter not only filling in sweeping blanks in the narrative history and mythology to which the series’ budget would otherwise be unable to extend, but also slyly lending a prominent place to the medium of drawing in the series’ imaginative landscapes.
The main character Sarah (Salvita Decorte) is an orphaned, squat-living artist, whose pictures, inspired by her dreams, have recently taken on a dark, obsessive aspect. The strange figures and creatures whom she has been sketching on paper are also coming out of the shadows on the streets. These are the Demit – immortal demonic beings who were once protectors of humankind, but have since become more slippery in their aims, if not downright sinister and predatory, as they blend in undercover with Indonesia’s emerging modernity.
Every few hundred years, a powerful Gift is sent by the gods for the worthiest Demit to claim. Sarah’s clairvoyant illustrations coincide with the days leading up to the next Gift, just as she enters a love triangle with a human and a Demit, and finds that her own mysterious origins involve a destiny that’s etched into her very flesh.
Meanwhile, different factions of the Demit begin openly clashing for the right to receive the Gift. Suit-wearing politician Juragan (Ario Bayu) carefully manipulates, blackmails and threatens humans and Demit alike to achieve his ends, ensuring that his own hands remain clean, while others do all the dirty work. Scheming Gorga (Alex Abbad), with his hipster hat and beard, bides his time. Foetus-eating Marni (Hanbah Al-Rashid) is prepared to give her right eye for influence. From out of town, vampiric lovers Tony (Reza Rahadian) and Ros (Tara Basro) are ready to break all rules to grab the Gift. Nadia (Adinia Wirasti) has been committing acts of terror for centuries, in the hope of being reunited with her hostage daughter. Hasan (Verdi Solaiman) has fallen in love with a mortal woman, knowing full well how such a relationship must end. Half-breed Barata (Arifin Putra), who was the last recipient of the Gift 300 years earlier, will do anything to stop a repeat of history – and Gusti (Bront Palarae), a human detective under Juragan’s thumb, must decide how best to preserve the delicate balance between all these Demit and the humans.
Having already proven his deftness at mixing genres and shifting paradigms with feature films The Forbidden Door (2009) and Ritual (aka Modus Anomali, 2012), Joko Anwar has directed and co-written (with Colin Chang) Halfworlds with real dexterity, easily juggling its multiple modes of fantasy, horror, action and drama. With each of the eight episodes a lean 30 minutes, there is little room here for the sort of padding that so often besets the fantastic scenarios of, for example, the MCU series. In keeping with Sarah’s artistic medium, the subplots here are suggestive character sketches rather than fully detailed portraits, presented in overlapping juxtapositions, which, as the show gets ever closer to its apocalyptic climax, are cross-cut in a manner that is dizzyingly kaleidoscopic, but coherent and never less than compelling.
If the struggles staged here seem like a gangster saga or a dynastic tragedy that just happens to come with eerie supernatural elements, this opens up the story to allegorical readings of an entirely human history. For amid all its timeless clashes of class, sex and race, Halfworlds offers a chronicle of universal (and global) struggles – for survival, power, love and family. The specific folklore informing Anwar’s demonology (with its Tuyuls, Palasik, Genderuwo, Kuntilanak and Banaspati) may be pleasingly local, but the story could take place anywhere, and at any time. Indeed, Season 2 of Halfworlds is translocated to Thailand. After all, humanity is always in transition – and everywhere in the world is a halfway house.
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