A visit to HBO’s Grisse: The Eastern Western you were waiting for

We had the opportunity to visit the Dutch garrison town of Grisse, also the title of an original series created by HBO Asia to be released at the end of the year. Grisse is an eight-part hour-long original period drama set in the Dutch East Indies period in the mid 1800s. The story revolves around a group of unlikely individuals from very diverse backgrounds who lead a rebellion against a brutal governor, and finally have a chance to determine their own destiny.

Part of the Grisse set in Batam. (Photo: HBO Asia)

OK – perhaps Grisse isn’t really an actual town that exists (we visited a production set in Batam), nor is the series actually based on historical events, but the alternate East-West reality that it projects is what makes the prospect of this period drama so compelling. HBO Asia has already produced eleven (!) Asian Original productions since 2012, and their commitment to create pioneering and relevant local content for Asian viewers is evident. 

Grisse (pronounced Griss-er) is a historical drama that follows this commitment to create original Asian content. Not only filmed in Batam and set in colonial Indonesia, it boasts an impressively pan-Asian cast, including Indonesian lead actors and actresses Marthino Lio, Ully Triani and Jamie Aditya, Japanese actor Toshiji Takeshima, Malaysian comedian and actress Joanne Kam, and our very own Singaporean actor/comedian Hossan Leong and Singaporean/American Jimmy T. The cast is led by a number of directors, including director and showrunner Mike Wiluan, a Singapore-based Indonesian film director who recently completed his directorial debut with Buffalo Boys.

“Mee-goreng” Western

What makes Grisse unique, however, is how it blends elements from East and West into an Eastern-style Western, or a ‘mee goreng Western’, if you will. Although the aforementioned cast is overwhelmingly Asian, and the series is conceptualised to take place in an actual East Indies small town called Gersik in the 1800s, Grisse has all the hallmarks of a modern-day cowboy adventure series. Following the alternate fantasy-realities of productions such as Halfworlds and Serangoon Road, Grisse is another history-fantasy cocktail, one which re-imagines the grittiness of a Western in an Asian colonial context.

The set reflects this dichotomy, with wall-plastered Wild-West style wanted ads interspersed with ancient-looking advertisements for Chinese medicine, and cow skulls and whiskey bottles are as commonplace as dried fish and buah keluak shells. The characters are as likely to be decked out in leather as they are likely to be dressed in batik, and a dreary classic saloon stares across the road at a gaudy Chinese brothel.  Weapon aficionados may also be interested to see the juxtaposition of pistols against parangs, krises facing off against Western swords, and various martial arts styles from all over Asia are showcased constantly in this action-packed drama series.

Eastern claim on Western territory

The cast also bring their Asian sensibilities to traditionally Western roles, and surprisingly, not much is lost in translation. The gun-slinging heroes are freedom fighters straining against colonial oppression, the dusty brothels are mistressed by mamasans and protected by kungfu fighters, and the roving mercenaries are ronin, wandering samurais hired by the Dutch to slay their detractors (this last point is not fantasy but apparently historical fact). 

And its not just the characters that transcend cultures. The distinctive Wild-West themes of revenge, justice, and heroic frontier-ism are not foreign to Asian audiences and movies, and are as native to a kungfu classic as they are here in all of their transplanted American glory. Fighting back against an oppressive colonial regime takes on an added layer of symbolism when it feels that it is not just your livelihood at stake, but that of an entire culture and civilisation.

And perhaps in a similar vein, Asian productions are fighting back traditionally exclusive American concepts. With offerings such as Grisse, Asian viewers are not only claiming new cultural capital for themselves with Hollywood-level production values, but also staking Eastern claim on Western territory. That deserves not just Asian viewership, but a global audience.

Principal photography for Grisse has begun, and the series is scheduled to premiere later this year on HBO Asia’s on-air, online and on-demand platforms.

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