PIFAN 2012 Review: BELENGGU Brings Bunnies, Blood and Beauty

James Marsh, Asian Editor
The opening of Belenggu (aka Shackled), could not be more promising. In the dead of night, a woman half hidden behind by a headscarf and sunglasses, drives down a remote stretch of country road. A panicked and bedraggled young man stumbles out of the undergrowth, and is picked up by this lone vehicle. Next to him on the back seat he discovers he is flanked by the bloody corpses of a woman and a young girl. In the passenger seat sits a figure in a full-size rabbit suit. The bunny turns to look at the young man and seems to give a sinister smile, just as the rain splashing against the windscreen suddenly turns to blood.

Sadly, all this turns out to be one of Elang's (Abimana Aryasatya) many disturbing dreams. He is frequently haunted by these visions of blood, murder, and always the man in the rabbit suit. As a result, he spends the rest of his time wandering aimlessly, a look of bewilderment on his face. He draws questioning stares from the other tenants of his apartment building, the staff of the coffee shop he frequents and also from his boss, colleagues and customers at the bar where he works. When reports on the news suggest that there is a serial killer at large in the neighbourhood, it has the community scared and perpetually on edge. It doesn't take long for their suspicions to focus on Elang.

Written and directed by female Indonesian filmmaker Upi (aka Upi Avianto), Belenggu is an extremely attractive piece of work that beautifully captures both the seedy side of modern day Jakarta, but also an inventive and suitably surreal aesthetic during Elang's numerous dreams and hallucinations. It is extremely well lit and photographed, which in turn help give the film a suitably eerie tone, while the script struggles to match the quality of the film's overall aesthetic. Elang appears capable of attracting the attentions of a number of different women, from smouldering prostitute Jinggu (Imelda Therinne) to put-upon wife and mother next door, Djenar (Laudya Chintya Bella), or even the sympathetic waitress from the coffee shop, but there is no escaping the fact that Elang is a deeply troubled man with some serious psychological issues.

As the story progresses, we slowly get to the root of Elang's problem and the extent of his imagined carnage and unfortunately the answers come as no great surprise. The film's biggest problem is not that it unfolds in a wholly predictable fashion, but that it does so incredibly slowly. As a result the audience is always about three steps ahead of the cops and everyone else in working out who the killer is and the truth behind the killer rabbit. While it always looks impressive, this can make for occassionally frustrating viewing. Unfortunately, the cast isn't always as strong as it needed to be either, in order to sell this story and help us engage with the plight of these not obviously likable people. This causes particular problems in the film's second half, as some characters become more menacing and manipulative, while others clamour for our sympathy.

With a tighter, more adventurous script, there is no doubt that Upi has the talents behind the camera to deliver an effective thriller of great beauty and dramatic substance. While Belenggu is not that film, it nevertheless makes a confident positive stride towards accomplishing that in the future.

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