Mention Indonesian director Joko Anwar, one of Southeast Asia’s most important filmmakers, and works of disturbing dark fantasy come to mind. Anyone who has seen Pintu Terlarang (The Forbidden Door, 2009) will know just how unnerving his films can get. The 2009 New York Asian Film Festival called it “one of the sickest, kinkiest films.”
Then there’s Kala (Dead Time, 2007), known as Indonesia’s very first tribute to film noir, a strange detective thriller set in a fictional dystopian land with a very foreboding atmosphere; and Modus Anomali (Ritual, 2012), the violent found-footage thriller with a fresh take on the well-worn man-wakes-up-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-amnesia premise. In all of this, it’s clear that Joko loves to keep his audiences guessing while chilling them to the bone.
(For those with a really tough heart, go watch his short film, the incredibly unsettling and shocking Grave Torture, here.)
It’s therefore an irony that he started his career writing the hit dramedy Arisan! (The Gathering, 2003) and made his directorial debut with the colourful romantic-comedy Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise, 2005), starring heartthrob Nicholas Saputra as a guy who delivers film reels to cinemas in a race against time to win the hand of a girl he fancies.
With talent like Joko’s, it wasn’t long before he went on to even bigger things, and right now the buzz and anticipation is high for his upcoming 8-part HBO Asia TV series, Halfworlds, about humans and demons battling it out in Jakarta. The trailer is out, and it looks fantastic, with a cast of Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian actors, including our very own Bront Palarae.
While on the feature-film front, Joko has returned to the romance genre (and effectively the festival circuit, with an official selection in Venice) with A Copy of My Mind, but don’t expect another Janji Joni. This one is a drama with a political edge, shot on a minuscule budget. But we expect no less from the director – even the feel-good Janji Joni had a few things to say about Indonesian life. You can watch A Copy of My Mind‘s trailer here.
As we gear up for Halfworlds, which premieres on Nov 29, I asked Joko five easy question.
1. What different challenges does making a TV series like Halfworlds pose, as compared to making a feature film?
I think there is less and less difference between TV series and feature films these days. In terms of style, both have become interchangeable. TV series have gained much higher popularity for the last decade and one of the reasons is because of their more cinematic approach. So I guess there isn’t much difference between making feature films and a TV series. For me, at least.
HBO wanted to make a thriller that has mythology and urban legend elements. I’ve been wanting to do something with the abundant mythological characters from Indonesia. So it was a match. I grew up watching Indonesian horror movies in a rundown cinema in my hometown Medan. I thought it would be fun to give these demons some revisions.
3. What is your opinion of an actor like Bront Palarae?
I loved working with Bront. It’s always a pleasure to work with someone with great talent but without a difficult attitude. He is fun. I think we have become bros.
4. Your horror and thriller films have a very unnerving mood. I made the mistake of watching Kala alone in the cinema some years ago, and was creeped out. What kind of horror and thriller films did you grow up watching, that influenced you?
I think I watched all the Indonesian horror movies from the 80s. All of them are B grade. But they were made with passion and great effort. Filmmakers were willing to go far to achieve their vision to entertain then, despite the limitations. Some of the memorable titles include Pengabdi Setan, Bayi Ajaib, Cincin Berdarah, and all movies starring Suzanna and Barry Prima.
5. You’ve returned to romance with A Copy of My Mind. But it seems very different from Janji Joni. Would you ever return to making a sunny, feel-good film like Janji Joni?
Most definitely. I never limit myself with certain genres. And I can tell you now I got some “sunny, fun movies” coming up soon.
NEXT IN FIVE EASY PIECES: James Lee and his online ghosts