When demons roam Jakarta

Bali-born artist-model Salvita Decorte plays Sarah, a tragic street artist, in Halfworlds.
Bali-born artist-model Salvita Decorte plays Sarah, a tragic street artist, in Halfworlds. PHOTO: HBO ASIA
For Halfworlds, directed by Joko Anwar, the backlot of Infinite Studios in Batam (above) has been transformed into modern-day Jakarta.
For Halfworlds, directed by Joko Anwar, the backlot of Infinite Studios in Batam (above) has been transformed into modern-day Jakarta.PHOTO: HBO ASIA
For Halfworlds, directed by Joko Anwar (above), the backlot of Infinite Studios in Batam has been transformed into modern-day Jakarta.
For Halfworlds, directed by Joko Anwar (above), the backlot of Infinite Studios in Batam has been transformed into modern-day Jakarta.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Fantasy thriller Halfworlds imagines an underground society of dark creatures

Halfworlds is a dark fantasy thriller about a battle between humans and demons with love, redemption and betrayal thrown into the mix. It sounds like a certain young adult book series which has been adapted for the big screen, but with one crucial difference - it is set in modern-day Jakarta.

Asia is more than just the backdrop, though. It is also the inspiration for the eight-part series which is slated to air on HBO in the last quarter of the year.

Speaking to regional media at Infinite Studios in Batam, Indonesian writer-director Joko Anwar, 39, says: "I've always been fascinated with Asian folklore, mythological stories and urban legends. They're very rich and that's the main attraction for me to do this.

"Asian countries are very close to supernatural stories and I think people in Asia are going to be interested in the story."

The English-language thriller imagines that an underground society of demons known as Demits have lived among humans for centuries, and that the delicate balance between them and mortals is disrupted.

Halfworlds is HBO Asia's fourth original production after horror flick Dead Mine (2012), period drama series Serangoon Road (2013) and horror series Grace (2014). It reflects their commitment to creating Asian content for the region and beyond, that is "authentic, premium, that allows us to collaborate with regional partners", says Ms Erika North, 39, head of programming and production at HBO Asia.

This is Joko's first foray into television. The versatile film-maker's previous works include the hit romantic comedy Joni's Promise (2005), raved-about film noir tribute Kala (2007) and psychological thriller Forbidden Door (2009).

He notes: "If you do films, because you're doing 90 minutes of content, you're limited, but here, you have eight episodes, maybe more, and you have more freedom to explore."

And given the strong support from HBO Asia and a strong pan-Asian cast, he adds: "It would be stupid of me not to take this."

The line-up includes Bali-born artist-model Salvita Decorte, 25, who plays Sarah, a street artist with a tragic past; Indonesian singeractress Aimee Saras, 31, as tattoo artist Pinung; award-winning actor Reza Rahadian (Habibie & Ainun, 2012), 28, as Tony, an immortal Demit who appears to be in his 30s; and well-known Malaysian actor-writer-director-producer Bront Palarae, 36, who plays veteran cop Gusti. Singaporean singer Nathan Hartono makes his TV debut as Sarah's love interest.

It was clear from speaking to the actors that working with Joko was a big draw.

Aimee, who had previously worked with him in the musical Onrop (2010), says: "It's great that one of Indonesia's best directors can be heard internationally. This is something different and something to look out for."

Salvita also looked forward to the part where she gets to "kick some a**".

She adds: "My character Sarah is more of a street fighter so it's not as cool as the other characters as I have only three moves.

"Although I'm pretty tiny, I like to think of myself as being the tough girl. But then they recorded me while I was practising and it was so embarrassing because I realised I punch like a little girl."

As Tony, Reza's weapons of choice include "huge blades and a dual-pronged silver instrument", according to the official write-up.

He says of working with them: "It's kind of heavy, but we have a mock-up, thank god. I'm not that worried about using this weapon on my fellow actors. It's safe and we know what to do with the blade."

For Bront, getting to do "full-fledged fantasy" was another reason he signed on.

"In Malaysia, fantasy is not something that we're used to. And this is conceptual fantasy. There are loads of things I want to do as an actor and they are jam-packed into this series."

At the same time, this is fantasy that is very much grounded in reality.

The backlot of Infinite Studios in Batam has been transformed into modern-day Jakarta. Electrical cable lines zigzag across the street while paper ads for products are plastered on the walls.

There are even back alleys thronging with food carts and tuk-tuks on shoot days.

There was such close attention to detail that the recreated Indonesian city even has traffic jams, quips Ms North.

She says: "It's very in keeping with something that we believe is authentic to Indonesian audiences, but will have regional, hopefully, international resonance."

•Halfworlds is slated to air on HBO in the last quarter of the year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'When demons roam Jakarta'. Print Edition | Subscribe