I wish I could say kinder things about this film, especially since it’s clear that this was a labor of love on the part of its director, Upi Avianto, an Indonesian genre filmmaker with numerous other films to her credit, such as Looking For Love in 30 Days (30 hari mencari cinta, 2004), Reality, Love and Rock n’ Roll (Realita, cinta dan rock’n roll, 2006), The Last Wolves (Serigala terakhir, 2009), and What’s Up With the Monkeys (Ada apa dengan monyet, 2010). All of these films are resolutely commercial; Looking For Love in 30 Days is a romantic comedy, while The Last Wolves is a by-the-book action thriller. Avianto also wrote the teen comedy Chocolate Strawberry (Coklat Stroberi, 2007) which was directed by Ardy Octaviand, and all of her films as either writer or director have done very well in her native land.
But Avianto, who prefers to be known simply as Upi, wanted to move beyond what she deemed more conventional filmmaking with her next project, and hopefully reach a wider audience. The result is Shackled (Belenggu, 2012), a Lynchian thriller centering on a young man, Elang (Abimana Aryasatya), who has dreams – or are they? – of a murderous killer in a rabbit costume (or is it really a giant rabbit?) who hacks up young women and children, something Elang seems powerless to prevent. As the film unspools, the line between reality and fantasy becomes more and more blurred, resulting in a conclusion that it equally enigmatic, albeit somewhat predictable given the conventions of Asian horror cinema.
In the British DVD of the film, which was used for this review, Upi notes that she consciously made Shackled to break into the international marketplace, and that she spent ten years working on the film to get it made. She also directly addresses “the British audience” – this is a Region 2 PAL disc – and hopes that they will “enjoy the film.” This makes me sad, because while I wish I could be more positive about the end result, I simply can’t. We’ve seen all this before, right down to the mix of fantasy and reality, the faux surrealism of the murderous rabbit and her brooding, mysterious female companion, coupled with the succession of women pleading for help in the face of violent death. From the first frame onward, Shackled seems tired and second-hand, recycled from previous films in the same vein.
What we have here is another moody slasher/ thriller, redolent of the work of Takashi Miike, Nobuo Nakagawa, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, Kaneto Shindo, Kôji Shiraishi and Sion Sono, but lacking the originality, power and impact of the best films by these talented directors. Upi’s dark, CinemaScope compositions, ably photographed by Ical Tanjung, who worked with Upi on The Last Wolves, effectively convey a world of perpetual uncertainty and dread, yet the narrative is never compelling; the whole film seems to be constantly pulling back from the edge of the abyss of madness it flirts with, and never really commits to the material. Ultimately, Upi’s first foray into dark fantasy is too beholden to filmmakers working along similar lines to make much of a splash with either audiences or critics; there’s nothing new or original here. Shackled comes off as calculated, in a rather obvious way, and emerges as almost a pastiche of other, more effective nightmare fantasy thrillers.
The always reliable and apparently indefatigable Derek Elley, who seems to live in screening rooms and attend every film festival on the planet, aptly summed up the film as “too much psycho and not enough horror,” which more or less covers it, but the other problem is that the “psycho” seems warmed over and uninvolving, despite the presence of the enigmatic, homicidal rabbit, and the constant shifts –which soon become boring and predictable – between fantasy and reality. Elley notes that the result is an “is-he-dreaming-all-this-or-not movie that’s mostly atmosphere and not much else […] in service of a script by Upi herself that strings the audience along with one after another nightmare/vision until an unnecessarily complicated denouement that doesn’t spring any real surprises,” and winds up awarding the film five stars out of a possible ten.
That about covers it; though the reviews in Variety and Twitch were much more positive, I have to side with Elley; the film simply doesn’t work. Ultimately, there’s nothing new here, and there’s also nothing really arresting to be keep the viewer involved – we’ve seen all this before, rendered with much more assurance and style. In the end, Shackled is a well-mounted disappointment, and one hopes that Upi will move on from this to return to genres in which she’s had more success. Even a supposed “twist ending” – which can be seen from miles off, and is itself borrowed from many similar films – can’t save the project from being a curious and somewhat interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; second revised edition 2013). Dixon’s textual blog of media commentary, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
Works Cited and Consulted
Elley, Derek (2012), “Shackled (Belenggu)”, Film Business Asia, July 26.
Kuipers, Richard (2012), “Review: Belenggu”, Variety, July 24, 2012.
Marsh, James, (2012), “PIFAN 2012 Review: Belenggu Brings Bunnies, Blood and Beauty”, Twitch, July 21.