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Joko Anwar, a driving force behind Indonesia’s modern film industry, is the creator of Netflix’s new anthology series Nightmares and Daydreams. The Satan’s Slaves filmmaker slips in and out of these seven episodes, with his fingers directly on the pulse of a select few. However, even when not personally directing or writing, Anwar’s unique touch can be felt in every inch of the journey. What initially looks to be a chain of unconnected stories turns out to be an odyssey with a specific and often unsettling destination.

Unlike other anthologies, there is no particular character who guides the audience in and out of the sub-stories and clarifies their experience. On the contrary, each tale kicks off with no kind of formal introduction — apart from a surreal opening sequence — thus allowing the series to access that certain sensation of nodding off and slipping into a dream. Everything appears relatively normal until a hint of unusualness emerges. Something else of note, and perhaps a word of caution, is how Nightmares and Daydreams approaches itself. Those hoping to see the same degree of extreme terror and gore found in Anwar’s other genre offerings, should adjust their expectations. That’s not to say there aren’t the occasional spots of red stuff, though. They are just few and far between.

The creator kicks everything off with the longest episode, “Old House.” Co-directed by Ray Farandy Pakpahan and Randolph Zaini, and co-written by Tia Hasibuan and Rafki Hidayat, the opener is the show’s most overtly sinister offering. “Old House” establishes a throughline in Nightmares and Daydreams; most stories tend to fixate on desperation, be it money or closure. It’s usually the former, as new viewers will come to see. Anwar’s past associate Ario Bayu plays Banji, a poor taxi driver who immediately regrets putting his senior mother (Yati Surachman) in a nursing home. The fact that this place sponsors the mother’s stay should be a red flag, yet the son’s realization not only comes too late but also at a high cost. “Old House” doesn’t exactly play things coy with where the story is heading, however, fans of Satan’s Slaves should be satisfied with the premiere. Barring the underwhelming visual effects, this episode precisely captures the show’s partial desire for nightmarishness.

The proceeding stories fall more into the region of daydreams, albeit disturbing ones. “The Orphan” is the first of two especially moralistic entries; Tommy Dewo’s one directed episode, with Hidayat as writer, concerns the impoverished and bereaved couple (Yoga Pratama, Nirina Zubir) who adopt a child (Faqih Alaydru) with a supernatural ability. The theme of preexisting misery, as a result of bad circumstances and socio-economic disparity, continues as these wretched characters use this boy in hopes of becoming instantly wealthy. That sense of greed would be loathsome elsewhere, whereas in “The Orphan,” the quality of avarice is refreshing when studied in context. It is more interesting to see characters try to change their fate rather than accept them as a sort of personal growth.

Up third is “Poems and Pains,” a strong contender for the series’ most compelling episode. Zaini and Anwar deliver one twist after the other in this imaginative thriller. Here a frustrated pop author (Marissa Anita, Impetigore) experiences the same injuries as one of the characters in her new novel. Digging deep into her psyche and past will finally uncover the shocking origin of this phenomenon. Again, Indonesia’s political and economic background plays a role in the mystery and outcome. In terms of pace and thrills, “Encounter” is the slowest and least supplying. Lukman Sardi heads this genre drama about a struggling fishing village succumbing to in-fighting and paranoia as the residents fight for ownership of a photograph of a supposed angel. Pakpahan and Anwar introduce the first major sign of the show’s overarching story.

By now viewers have noticed each episode prefaces itself with an unmissable timestamp — the setting’s year is always given — and mention of the central location of Jakarta. This may seem negligible, but Nightmares and Daydreams is, in fact, painting a bigger picture. These stories’ shared backdrop is one with a long history of political turbulence. The show is providing a semblance of escapism, when in truth, everything shown here is a reflection of reality. Zaini and Anwar’s heartstrings-pulling fifth episode, “The Other Side,” is indicative of this point as a couple (Kiki Narendra and Sita Nursanti, Satan’s Slaves 2: Communion) and their son struggle during the ‘90s-era recession. The patriarch aches for happier times, and he literally gets lost in his nostalgia. As to be expected, that reminiscence has dangerous consequences for everyone.

nightmares and daydreams

Image: Asmara Abigail and the cast in Joko Anwar’s Nightmares and Daydreams: ‘P.O. Box.’ Credit: Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Nightmares and Daydreams nears the finish line with the penultimate “Hypnotized.” Pakpahan and Hasibuan’s collaboration is more paternalistic horror with a heavy slather of Twilight Zone strangeness. The troubled father (Fachri Albar, V/H/S/2) of this section witnesses the bizarre consequences of an ethical transgression, and setting things right proves impossible. The apparent straightforwardness is topped off with a substantial step forward in the series’ bigger narrative. Finale “P.O. Box,” helmed by Anwar and co-written by Hidayat, follows a diamond appraiser (Asmara Abigail, Impetigore) in search of her missing sister. Her horrifying discovery brings everything together with force and ambition, although despite the explosive conclusion, there is still plenty of room for the series to continue.

While Nightmares and Daydreams slightly misleads with its anthology angle, the chapters building up to the grandiose climax still can, more or less, function as standalone tales. On their own though, not every episode is as successful as the next — a rule of thumb for all anthologies — but together they make up pieces of a mighty journey into the headspace of Indonesia’s most innovative filmmaker.

Joko Anwar’s Nightmares and Daydreams is now streaming on Netflix.

3.5 out of 5

Nightmares and daydreams poster

Image: Joko Anwar’s Nightmares and Daydreams poster. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

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