Indonesian folklore gets a modern take in new HBO Asia series "Halfworlds," featuring director Joko Anwar and major Indonesian movie stars. (Photo courtesy of HBO Asia)

Two Sides of Jakarta in HBO Series ‘Halfworlds’

AUGUST 21, 2015

A quick mention of Jakarta will easily bring to mind air-conditioned malls, careless motorbikes, the notorious traffic jams, and calls to prayer that echo around neighborhoods. But at a set at Inifinite Studio in Batam, Jakarta is transformed into an old town where the alleys are long and grim, the buildings are low, and the shops by the side of the streets have huge vintage signs.

This moody version of Jakarta is a staple look in the HBO Asia original series “Halfworlds,” directed by Joko Anwar. The series tells a story about creatures from Indonesian folklore, where demits (demons) take human form and have infiltrated human society. These spooks are protected by a family of mortals who have enslaved them for 300 years.

The Singapore-based office is extremely secretive about this collaborative project, but during a set visit to the Batam studio in June, HBO Asia head of programming and production Erika North said the story was still set in present-day Jakarta. 

“There is an underground society of demons that exist and through the course of the story, the delicate balance between humans and demons is disrupted,” she said. The twist is that it also features a world that is unlike the current urban environment we are familiar with.

The chief executive of Infinite Studio, Mike Wiluan, said it was a parallel universe where style, architecture and mythology collided. The team did film in parts of Jakarta last month, but the majority of the production took place in the Batam studio, where control over environmental variables is easier.

“It’s a new universe of characters and places that may or may not exist,” he said. “It’s drawing that kind of line where we’re using the studio and pushing the limit and creativity.”

Wiluan said the project required a director who was culturally ingrained with Indonesia, but also understood the nature of international filmmaking. Both Wiluan and North are more than familiar with Joko’s work, such as “Janji Joni” (“Joni’s Promise”), “Kala” (“Time”) and “Modus Anomali" ("Ritual").

“He’s such an accomplished filmmaker, and you’re just translating what he can do in film to television, and that’s exactly what we’re about,” North said. “It’s about creating premium cinematic content.”

There is an interest in keeping a sense of authenticity in the story, and the show features a mixture of Indonesian and Malaysian talent. “Halfworlds” stars Reza Rahadian ("Habibie & Ainun"), Arifin Putra ("The Raid 2"), Adinia Wirasti ("Laura & Marsha"), Hannah Al-Rashid ("V/H/S/2"), Tara Basro ("Catatan Harian Si Boy"), Ario Bayu ("Soekarno"), Alex Abbad ("The Raid 2"), Aimee Saras ("Onrop") and Salvita Decorte in her breakout role.

“Halfworlds” is shot in both English and Indonesian. For many of these actors, this is the first time they are acting in English. Wiluan said it was in their interest to create scenes that were interesting, dynamic and natural.

“The ultimate vision is to create something that is truly pan-Asian. We are not really just forcing Asian actors to play very stereotypical roles, forcing them to speak English in a very odd situation,” he said.

“Halfworlds,” which will run for eight episodes, marks Joko’s first television gig. For the film director, television offers a lot of space for him to have fun with the subject. Joko said he was selective about shows that he watched, and always wanted to do a television series.

As a director of films with certain aesthetics, Joko did not plan to take a different approach to “Halfworlds.”

“I don’t think I should differentiate TV and film looks,” he said. “Whether TV or cinema, it should follow your way of cinematic storytelling, so treatment-wise, it’s the same.”

The 39-year-old said he enjoyed the dark nature of the material in “Halfworlds.”  He said he felt supernatural stories were something that people in Asia were very close with.

“I’ve alway been fascinated by cults, all things supernatural, Asian folklore, science fiction, and my films have always been about demons,” he said. “The mythological resources are mainly Indonesian, but I think people from across Asia can relate to it.”

Following “Serangoon Road,” “Dead Mine” and “Grace,” “Halfworlds” is HBO Asia’s fourth original project. To broadcast content that resonates across an entire region is a constant challenge, and North said each series brought new challenges from which they were learning and evolving.

“Truth of the matter is, if you start thinking about creating [something] that's gonna hit every target demographic, you're onto nothing,” North said. “You really have to focus on quality, story and characters.”

She added that every character in “Halfworlds” was well-researched, discussed and debated.

Reza, who plays Tony the demon, said that each actor in the show was not playing a typecast and had their own originality. He described his character as a complex being, as he had never played an immortal before.

“This is the first time I'm working in English, so it's not easy to memorize all the lines,” he added.

He said he did not use a specific method or ritual to get into character.

“I don’t even know what it means to be ‘in character,’ because when I’m on set, after I read a script and memorize the lines, I just know what to do,” Reza said.

Salvita, who plays Sarah, a street artist, said she felt the whole process of casting, rehearsing and shooting was “quick and intense.” The cast spent around two weeks reading the script and rehearsing street fight choreography.

“The physical part is more challenging but the emotional part, like her passion in painting, comes naturally to me,” she said.

As part of a cable production, “Halfworlds” undoubtedly has a big chance of receiving international exposure. But for North, the main task lies not in finding viewers across the region, but in reaching new audiences within Asia, where HBO broadcasts in more than 20 territories.

“The goal with this show is to move beyond single-territory appreciation,” she said. “With Joko and the cast, we want to reach new audiences. We want to appeal to people who are interested in edgy, dynamic content.”

North said she fully realized the complexity of Asia as a tapestry of different cultures and languages, each with their own mythologies.

“This region is rich with stories, and we certainly want to mine that across our productions,” she said.

“Halfworlds” will be released by the end of this year.