Screen Test

Asian demons strike home

Setting the horror series Halfworlds in the streets of Jakarta ups the fear factor for local audiences.
Setting the horror series Halfworlds in the streets of Jakarta ups the fear factor for local audiences.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Growing up in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, pontianak and toyol were far scarier to me than tales of vampires, werewolves and other imported boogeymen.

Those stories seemed more real because they happened closer to home and were gleefully relayed by relatives and neighbours instead of books and screens.

This sort of cultural familiarity will certainly up the fear factor in HBO Asia's stylish new drama Halfworlds, which uses the back alleys of Jakarta - and a distinctively South-east Asian backdrop of street markets and shophouses - as its setting.

Directed by Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar (Kala, 2007) and featuring Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean actors speaking English and Bahasa Indonesia, it borrows from Indonesian folklore to conjure up a universe where kuntilanak (another name for the she-demons known as pontianak), toyol and other blood-thirsty ghouls go bump in the night.

  • HALFWORLDS

  • Sundays at 10pm on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601). Encore marathon of all eight episodes will air in the week of Jan 26. Also available on HBO On Demand.

    3/5 stars

A graphic novel-style animation at the start of each episode explains how this half-demon world came to be: birthed at the dawn of creation, the demit (Javanese for "demons") were the children of the gods and at first acted to protect the human race.

Then humans began to see them as monsters and now just a handful are left, with only a few humans aware of their existence.

One of them is a powerful man named Juragan (Indonesian star Ario Bayu), whose family has for generations been in charge of hiding the demit world from humans and maintaining balance and order, and Gusti (Malaysian actor and film-maker Bront Palarae), the policeman who works for him.

But the demit world is growing restless because it is almost time for "The Gift" - a mysterious event that promises to change everything when it bestows special powers on one demit.

The key to it all is a girl named Sarah, played by Indonesian model- turned-actress Salvita Decorte.

Her character makes a living sketching portraits of people on the street, but lately, she cannot stop drawing pictures of her parents - who died under mysterious circumstances during the 1998 riots - as well as strange-looking symbols and a hooded man she has never seen.

Worried about her growing obsession with these haunting images are her indie-rocker boyfriend Coki (played by Singaporean singer Nathan Hartono) and their tattooist friend Pinung (Indonesian actress and singer Aimee Saras), who secretly pines for Coki.

The series boasts some impressively slick production values and cinematography, especially in the lusciously moody night-time sequences and fight scenes, which evoke a graphic-novel look and feel.

In the first two episodes, the gradual escalation of tension surrounding the mystery of "The Gift" is rather effective, leaving you wanting more despite some pretty big hints as to who the recipient will be.

The plot as a whole has a lot of promising forward momentum, even with the Mythology 101-type explanations of the different demons and their powers, which are a necessary, world-building evil at this stage.

And it is just as well, because the dialogue is at best functional - Sarah and Coki's pillow talk literally consists of them taking turns to tell each other how cool the other one is.

There are some bright spots, particularly from Pinung, who jokes about not having enough space to tattoo "pervert" on her lecherous customer's private parts and ends up writing "nasi goreng" on his back.

Aimee's sparkling performance as Pinung does highlight the uneven talents of the cast, though - particularly the actors' markedly different abilities when it comes to comfortably delivering natural- sounding dialogue in English.

Ario, in particular, comes across rather stilted as he tries, perhaps a little too hard, to convey the danger simmering just below the surface of Juragan.

That said, this is unlikely to be a dialogue-heavy show, which is probably a smart move, given the international, multilingual audience it is aimed at.

There is clearly a lot of action coming too. Episode 2 laid the groundwork for future battle sequences by explaining that the demit can be killed with blades forged in the volcano where they were born. And in this case, less talking and more fighting might not be a bad thing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2015, with the headline 'Asian demons strike home'. Print Edition | Subscribe