Shackled (Belenggu) (2013)

Rabbity goodness.
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Belenggu AKA Shackled - Rabbity goodness.

Amongst all of god's creatures, the humble rabbit has quite a strong pedigree in cult cinema. If it's not the little critters themselves, then it's people donning rabbit costumes, usually to get away with some sort of nefarious deed; we had killer rabbits in Night of the Lepus and of course Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then a man-rabbit called Frank up to no good in Donnie Darko. It seems that Indonesian cinema isn't to be long outdone on this score and so we come to Belenggu, a film with its own crazy bunny motif... though if I was to make one main criticism of this Lynchian tale of mental illness, it would be "needs moar rabbit".

From the outset, dreams and reality intermingle in Belenggu, meaning that the movie really wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of letting you know what to expect. An early dream-vision for the main protagonist (or is it antagonist?) Elang (Abimana Aryasatya) sees him getting into a car with a mysterious female driver, and two fellow passengers – a dead child and a dead woman respectively. It seems as though the woman and child, at least, are really known to him – his neighbours, Djena (the fruitily-named Laudya Cynthia Bella) and little Senja (the minimally-named Avrilla), who seem to be unhappy in their lives. His everyday life is as whacked out as his dreaming life, and nothing seems straightforward; there are rumours of a killer on the loose in the area, so that every young man in the neighbourhood is under suspicion, and life in his apartment block is heady stuff, with strange people ever coming and going. When Elang encounters the mysterious, beautiful but somehow familiar Jingga (Imelda Therinne) at the bar where he works and saves her from an abusive partner, she latches on, going back to his place and staying there – and as their relationship blossoms, it seems she has something to ask of him which will complicate things ever further...

I said that the film wears its heart on its sleeve; well, one of the problems with the way in which Belenggu throws itself into its visually-appealing David Lynch style of strangeness (even seeming to directly lift a few elements from Mulholland Drive, including the theatre setting as subconscious) is that you can tell from the outset that, somehow, this is going to be a tale about altered mental states. In fact, if you've seen a few of these films which operate in the exact same way, such as The Machinist or Haute Tension, then you'll spot the visual clues very early on – but, you then have to wait for an hour and forty minutes for the full resolution. Belenggu has a lot of stylistic flair, and it communicates its nightmarish paranoia pretty well, but because of the tried-and-tested nature of its mental-illness-tastic plot, it feels immensely protracted, even dull in places. It also feels as though it is trying to be many things in one film, moving from a film which is full of internal monologue and surrealism to much more of a detective thriller at around the halfway mark – the shift allows the film to ladle out its exposition clearly enough, and the ends are tied together satisfactorily (albeit with very little surprises) but, well, the waiting around is excessive anyway.

One of the other issues which I had with the film was that I found Elang himself a rather difficult character to bear with, never quite charismatic enough to carry the weight of the film on his own, nor convincingly menacing, even allowing for the fact that he is meant to be, for the most part, an everyday guy. Being the main character, right down to responsibility for any early exposition thanks to being the narrator as well, is a challenge and it could just be that the convoluted plot did not sit well with a relatively inexperienced young actor.

As for the rabbity goodness, its placement in the plot is explained away rather rationally in the end, but I still say we'd have had a better time if the giant bunny got more screen-time...

It looks slick and it is in many respects ambitious, but the fact that Belenggu was made by a non-horror director really does show, eventually. We're well-versed in spotting the clues to madness in our cinema, and perhaps this makes us all a tad jaded. Still, it's great to see an Indonesian director's work getting some exposure in the West, and I hope there'll be more of it to come.
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Categories: Asian Horror Movies

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