Joko Anwar (director and writer), Chukiat Narongrit (cinematographer), Jia Yi Gan and Natalie Soh (editors), Collin Chang (writer)
Salvita Decorte, Arifin Putra, Reza Rahadian, Ario Bayu, Bront Palarae, Tara Basro, Aimee Saras, Nathan Hartono (cast)
DECEMBER 1, 2017 (HBO US SERVICES VIA HBO GO/NOW/ON DEMAND)
HBO Asia’s Halfworlds is a TV show with an apt name. On a superficial level, it’s about the demon versus the human world, centering on a young woman who walks the line between the two. Beneath the surface though is a show that wants to be both an action horror and a soap opera, mixing blood splatter with teen romcom-esque drama. The result is an often messily stitched together mishmash, one that gives you an interesting premise to start with but ends up squandering many of its opportunities by season end.
The first season revolves around Indonesian demons, called demit, who were created by the gods to be our guardians centuries ago. The guardians and humans lived in peace until 300 years ago, when a terrible power called the Gift was bestowed by the gods on a half human/half guardian. Eventually war broke out between the two groups (why, and whether it led to or was the result of the Gift, is still unclear to me). The guardians were nearly wiped out; the ones remaining morphed into demit, and now lurk among humans in the present day, waiting for the next bestowing of the Gift and hoping it will turn the tide against their vassals-turned-conquerers.
We’re told this story piecemeal across the season through a series of gorgeous opening animations by artist Chris Lie, who brings to life the mythology in a way that the live action often cannot. Lie shows us that each demit wears the tattooed mark of their maker; I’m making a big assumption here that there used to be just five gods, as we’re shown five marks, five different breeds of demons. The five monsters are as follows: a Kuntilanak is a bloodthirsty she-demon; a Palasik is a woman who devours unborn fetuses; Tuyuls are like small, vicious children who can be used to do your bidding; and the Banaspati are “devils with flaming heads,” whose true loyalties are often a mystery.
Much of this show’s meaning is conveyed through drawings and other various art forms. The opening animations give us a basic understanding of the mythology surrounding the demit. The demon’s marks manifest in the show as tattoos; many scenes take place in a tattoo parlor, and often we’re shown a glimpse of a demit’s tattoo in order to understand what tribe they belong to. And then the show’s protagonist, Sarah (Salvita Decorte), is herself a street sketch artist, doodling anything to get by.
Sarah is a wiry, self-sufficient woman who we’re told hasn’t had an easy life: she grew up as an orphan, carries around a criminal record, lives in an abandoned building, and is haunted constantly by images of demons and the death of her parents. Her sketches keep her alive both physically and mentally; they feed her, but you get the sense that they’re also the tools she uses to make sense of the world, to tether herself to her past and present.
The other half of this tale is Barata (Arifin Putra). If Sarah is our relatable point-of-view character, someone only peripherally aware of demons, Barata is the opposite, a man who’s been a part of the demit world for too long. Slinking around in a black hood and dispensing with demit along the way, Barata is drawn inexorably closer to Sarah as more and more demit begin to take notice of her and how she will likely be the next vessel for the Gift. The two share a chemistry that bounces between stand-offish and then sexual tension, with their relationship grounded in the fact that both of them are, at the end of the day, lonely people looking for some connection.
Were the story centered on Barata, Sarah, and this ancient war, the show could have been an intriguing, concisely told tale of what happens when the demon and human worlds collide. Barata and Sarah are in many ways two halves of the same coin: both half demon, half humans, and both appropriately cast with two biracial Asian actors. The nuances of what it means to feel pulled between two worlds, two cultures, is a topic that could have been explored through a fantastical analogy.
Sadly, the show undermines itself by attempting to take on too much, too quickly, and the result is that the audience is left with a frustrating number of questions, extra characters, and loose ends. We’re given crucial information about the Gift in an extremely roundabout way, with reveals happening in the sixth episode that should have happened by the end of the first. On top of this overarching plot line about the Gift, Sarah, and Barata, we’re introduced to a tremendous cast of characters: Nadia (Adinia Wirasti), a Palasik and assassin who longs to be a mother herself; Detective Gusti (Bront Palarae), a human who starts looking into Sarah; Marni (Hannah Al Rashid), a sassy Palasik who was a past lover or something-or-other with Gusti; Tony (Reza Rahadian) and Ros (Tara Basro), a murderous Genderuwo and Kuntilanak couple who covet the Gift for themselves; Bandi (Cornelio Sunny) and Gorga (Alex Abbad), two Banaspati manipulating events from behind the scenes; Hasan (Verdi Solaiman), who once forged the weapons used the kill the guardians in the volcano they were born from; Juragan (Ario Bayu), the only human priest who can conduct the ceremony of the bestowing of the Gift; and Coki (Nathan Hartono) and Pinung (Aimee Saras), Sarah’s human friends who make up the love triangle she’s trapped in. Let me say that this show is only eight episodes long, thirty-minutes a piece. If I sound confused as to what the purpose of most of these characters is, it’s because I am.
With such a large cast and essentially four to five hours to tell this entire tale, it feels inevitable that most of these characters would be painted shallowly. Frustratingly, it’s Sarah’s story that ends up getting truncated the most. Rather than let Sarah explore her heritage, her past, or her powers as a half demon, the narrative repeatedly shoves Coki and Pinung on us, to the detriment of Sarah’s own character growth. We are told, repeatedly and often, that Coki just really, desperately loves Sarah, and can’t stand the thought of her drawing or frankly even talking to other men. Pinung, Coki’s childhood friend, has been in love with him for ages, and the show telegraphs this so blatantly that it’s a wonder Sarah never catches on.
We are meant to believe these two are Sarah’s main support system, yet they undercut her at every turn. Coki becomes so jealous of Sarah’s drawings of Barata—and really, at that point in the story her connection to him is just that, on paper—that he writes a song calling her a liar and performs it in front of a full bar. Sarah is nothing but sweet to Pinung, and yet Pinung is quick to dunk Sarah’s entire sketchbook in the trashcan when she accidentally leaves it behind. When Sarah is in a panic about the demit closing in and has to patch up a bleeding Barata, Coki’s first questions are not about her safety, but why she let another man into her home.
There are light-hearted moments between the three, such as when Sarah and Pinung laugh about tattooing “gasi goreng,” fried rice, onto an excited white tourist’s back. Coki’s first serenade to Sarah, before the idea of Barata starts to haunt him, is sweet. But these are small moments of joy in a narrative that largely forgets Sarah is there, that she is a character we should probably be paying attention to. She once tells Coki, “I used to beat up kids like you back at the orphanage,” and yet we never see her actually fight anyone. We never quite learn why her parents were killed or why she’s considered a front-runner for the Gift. We know more about how Pinung and Coki perceive her rather than who she actually is. Whenever we get close to exploring Sarah’s backstory in a deeper and more meaningful way, the narrative literally flies off the rails and centers how Coki feels about what’s happening to his relationship with his girlfriend.
In the end, Sarah’s story cuts off as abruptly as it began, and we’re left with little closure or indication if she’ll be ok. We’re stuck with even more general questions about the mythology as a whole: specifically why did the guardians change into demit? The show clearly wants to convince us that the demit have been wronged, by how can we feel sympathy for them when they’re all literally killing innocent people every episode? Why does Lie’s art show us a variety of monster shapes, but in the show all the demit have normal looking human bodies? Why are half demit seen as a threat, and can the Gift only be bestowed on these “half-breeds?” Why is Juragan the only one who can bestow the Gift, and why does he even have magic? Honest to god, what even is the Gift?