Shackled (Belenggu)

Indonesia (2012) Dir. Upi Avianto

Over the past decade, Indonesian cinema has been represented on the international stage mostly by its brutal martial arts action films such as The Raid, yet we know this can’t be the sum of their film output. This gnarly psychological horror is an example of what else Indonesia has to offer.

Bartender Elang (Abimana Aryasatya) has been suffering from nightmares of being in a car with a woman and dead bodies on the back seat. Meanwhile, a series of murders have rocked his neighbourhood and Elang fears for the safety of his neighbour Djenar (Laudya Cynthia Bella) and her daughter Senja (Avrilla) because of Djenar’s controlling husband Guntur (Verdi Solaiman), a knife thrower who wears a rabbit costume.

Later, Jingga (Imelda Therinne), resembling the woman in his dreams comes to Elang’s bar one night. She is assaulted by a man but Elang steps in. Learning she has been evicted from her flat, Elang takes Jingga in, and she slowly gets into Elang’s head about how she was raped and her attackers must die. Unable to tell reality from illusion, Elang hears a voice in his head telling him to do Jingga’s bidding and kill the men.

Upi Avianto is a prolific screenwriter and director in her native Indonesia with mostly comedies and dramas to her credit, making Shackled quite the departure. I’ve not seen any of Upi’s (she is known locally by her first name) other works but I imagine story wise this would be her most ambitious work, given the expected twisty nature of the plot, which Upi does indeed deliver and then some.

Per the conventions of the reality vs. illusion premise, this sinuous tale follows many of the staple plot beats and developments, which makes some of the revelations perhaps a little predictable for some. That said, the final act flips the entire story on its head, which is a either a sign of Upi’s perspicacity in knowing when to fool the audience, or a sign we film watchers are getting too smug for own good.

The story is told with a narration from Elang, which is unusual to begin with, since it is unclear whom he is talking to, especially for someone with such a fragile neuroses, but this only matters in hindsight. Upi opens the film with Elang’s recurring nightmare of being in the car with the corpses, then recalling them to a waitress at a café where he sits alone at the same table.

Elang is quickly established as a timorous and troubled man, making his descent into paranoia plausible though the reason for his nervous state is not revealed until the end. This proves frustrating at first yet the ambiguity of whether this condition is neurological or supernatural keeps us watching, giving us something to frame Elang’s actions in the ensuing scenes.

For instance, he often bursts in on Djenar and Senja unsolicited whenever he suspects they may be in danger, only to be ejected by Guntur, usually accompanied by visions of Guntur’s bloodstained rabbit suit. If you thought the rabbit in Donnie Darko was creepy, this one is creepier despite being fluffy and white and not just for holding a crimson stained hatchet either.

Jingga entering into Elang’s life is a turning point for him but not necessarily a positive one from our perspective, but even a confused man can’t resist the lure of a tactile and sultry damsel in distress. Surreptitiously getting into Elang’s head is easy for Jingga but others around him view her askance. But the damage is done and armed with a small axe, three men are about to met their end by Elang’s hands.

Don’t get comfortable because following Elang’s arrest, the big plot twist comes and as mentioned earlier, it is likely it won’t be much of a surprise. This is fair judgement but it doesn’t mean the revelations that come from it won’t catch us out. Some details about Elang do remain a little sketchy, which one major truth hinges on, but this is just the start of more of layers of intrigue and shocking exposures to give this story the weighty conclusion it deserves.

With so much Asian horror of the late 20th/early 21st century revolving around certain tropes and concepts that have been reworked ad infinitum by Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand, one would have thought the pool would be empty by now. It might be that Upi is a little late to the party or ahead of the game in Indonesia; as already discussed, she doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table except for the cultural aspect, although this is barely touched upon.

So we look to the presentation to find this film’s worth and I’m happy to report Upi demonstrates a keen sense of how to unnerve the audience through atmosphere and visual flair. Whether it is a child’s toy, the audience at Guntur’s performance, or Elang’s face contorting at the confusion in his head, Upi creates a niggling sense of dread and unease through the camera, saving the big tricks for when they are needed and not just for a random scare.

Her other effective weapon is the cast, sine this is about the people and not the horrors they endure. Abimana Aryasatya essays Elang as a well-meaning man-child guided by a force he cannot resist, utilising his lanky frame as an extension of his personality. Whilst Elang is a compelling protagonist, Imelda Therinne steals the film as Jingga, not just as a smouldering succubus but through the other side of her character which surfaces in the tumultuous final act.

If the only gripe we have about Shackled is that retreads familiar ground then Upi has done great job of taking what works within the remit of psychological horror and putting her own spin on it. Boasting a well-structured story, great acting, impressive production, and genuine terror, this is an overlooked title worthy of a look – unless you are a rabbit lover.

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