Films, Horror, Indonesia, Reviews

Shackled (Belenggu)

Perhaps more unsettling than scary, Indonesian director Upi’s accomplished effort gives a distinctive slant to familiar Asian horror tropes…

Plagued by nightmares of a mysterious girl, dead bodies and a man in a rabbit suit, Elang (Abimana Aryasatya) finds it increasingly difficult to tell reality and his visions apart. Elang sees little of the outside world, between his apartment block and part-time job in a bar, save for frequenting a coffee shop for breakfast. With news reports of murders making the locals suspicious of each other, Elang describes them all as being ‘imprisoned in the town’ (which has greater relevance later on).

With this murderer on the loose, he starts to worry for the safety of his neighbour Djenar (Laudya Cintya Bella) and her daughter Senja (Avrilla), even suspecting her controlling husband (Verdi Solaiman) of being the killer. And then the girl he’s been dreaming about walks into his life for real, Jingga (Imelda Therinne, Macabre, Kuntilanak 3, Hi5teria), and Elang offers to let her stay at his apartment. One night she returns home badly beaten claiming to have been raped and tortured by three men. Protective and furious, he decides they must be punished, with shocking consequences.

But as the police become involved in investigating Elang, we realise we’ve been seeing the world through his eyes all along, and there’s more to the mystery of the killings than we might ever expect…

With quite a career in Indonesian cinema, writer/director Upi (Avianto, 30 hari mencari cinta, Coklat stroberi, Reality, Love and Rock’N Roll) brings her story to the screen with accomplished style. Aksan Sjuman’s fully orchestral score glides us through this dreamy world, well photographed by Ical Tanjung – who uses the tilt-shift effect to selectively focus only certain areas (recently rather popular in UK TV dramas) adding a abstracted quality. Quite deliberately, the scenes never quite fit together, just as you might find in a dream. In his room, the light filtered through a wiring fan makes him appear like the sole audience member in front of an old-fashioned projector.

Here Upi’s imagery gives us stylised clues to Elang’s existence in and out his visions. From Elang’s apartment, a neon cross above his bed; to the strange characters he meets – the nun who whispers in his ear, or the cowboy hat wearing albino and the mad, wiry white haired lady who both try to warn him to stay way from Jingga. And however effective it is as disturbing image, you can’t help but notice how popular the rabbit suit motif has become in the wake of Donnie Darko, with appearances including the recent Tormented 3D (aka Rabbit Horror) and Fairy Tale Killer. (Enough already!)

At points Abimana Aryasatya seems too wound up in his anxiousness for no one else to be aware of how strangely he’s (over) acting – but then without giving the whole game away, I guess that’s the point. Right from the outset, you are aware that nothing is quite what it seems, and that we are moving towards that stock-in-trade of Asian horror, the ‘big reveal’. By making the device more obvious, the revelation might not be overwhelming, but ultimately there’s a more tragic tale of absolute guilt and absolute innocence, of manipulation for most devious and deadly of goals. Upi brings a distinctive style to those familiar tropes that feel more like a sweltering, smoky and nightmarish noir, with the figure of Jingga walking into his life like the archetypal femme fatale.

(It seems that you are still allowed to smoke in Indonesian bars and cafes, or perhaps that’s director Upi’s invention, as is her made up brand of taxis, ‘Jakarta Taksi’.)

If Aryasatya overplays the increasingly jittery, nervous mental state of Elang, Therinne is quite outstanding as Jingga, cutting the right line of seductive and dangerous – or is she? Shackled might explain their immediate history, but leaves Elang with a sketchy reasons for how he ended up as he did – just the suggestion that he could be paying the eternal price for his sins.

A tight, well-directed psychological thriller, Shackled (Belenggu) might not be the most imaginative Asian Horror, but with such an unsettling and distinctive noir style, it’s a solid addition and worthy of watching.

Shackled (Belenggu) is available on UK DVD from Terror-Cotta (Terracotta Distribution).

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »

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