by Federica Pugliese
“If they had told me then that it would be 15 years…would it have been easier to endure? Or harder?“
So asks Oh Dae-Su, protagonist of Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy (2003), reflecting on the interminably long confinement inflicted upon him as an act of revenge towards an offense he committed years back. Would it be easier to know how long the reclusion is going to last? Confinement is a crucial element of Oldboy’s extreme revenge plot, to the point that it is both an act of revenge in itself and something for which Oh Dae-Su later seeks retribution.
In short, the middle piece of Park Chan-Wook’s revenge triptych is arguably one of the most striking films on the theme, where confinement is both the merciless punishment inflicted on the protagonist, and the trigger of his ruthless revenge. The protagonist’s reclusion repeatedly threatens to lead him to madness; tormented by the impossibility of moving, his condition is aggravated by not knowing the reason for such punishment, as well as his sudden separation from what’s left of his family. Oh Dae-su’s time in confinement is marked by periodic fits of rage, hallucinations, fried dumplings and the constant presence of television: “The television is both your clock and calendar. It is your school, home, church, friend and lover” – much like connection is to us in these days of solitude.
Although thematically combining a broader number of elements in which confinement appears as one part of a wider narrative, Bong Joon-Ho’s latest Parasite (2019) also briefly but effectively displays the deleterious impact of long-term isolation (of different characters at different times) in the basement of the Parks’ family home. Here, life underground is depicted as a claustrophobic prison in which, most of all, the characters long for communication with the external world (memorably, their best attempt at doing this is by using the light bulbs in the hope to communicate with the world via Morse code.)
In Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), a whole community is escorted to a bunker to escape the cruelties of the Nazi occupiers. But, as the country gets on with life after the war (under Tito’s regime), Marko’s self-interest prevails as he decides to hold them underground by leading them to believe the war isn’t over yet. Despite enduring the li(f)e they live below the ground, life goes on and evolves quite well: a lively community develops, in which families are organised in a sort of mini-commune that shares labour, a love for Tito, and a blissful ignorance towards what really goes on in the country above their heads.
If fiction has always (rightfully) deemed confinement as lack of freedom, works of non-fiction have shed a light on the resilience that can be found in reclusion. Their subjects often attempt to escape the walls around them through the power of creativity; through these lenses, confinement is revealed as a place (psychological as much as physical) from which creativity emerges as a spontaneous, inevitable response to restraint.
In Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack (2015), six brothers have spent most of their lives locked up in their flat in Lower East Side Manhattan by their overprotective father, in the attempt to shelter them from the dangers of the streets of New York (a sort of real-life counterpart to The Virgin Suicides). “Dad was the only one with keys to the front door”, reveals one of the siblings; clearly the paternal figure was the cause of the siblings’ suffering (alongside that of their mother, whom we also realise is trapped against her will and, in her own words, probably has it worse than them).
Moselle captures the siblings’ day-to-day life of elaborate costumes, skilful props and cleverly built settings, as they eventually escape confinement through the world of film with remarkable flair and dedication. And while their intense creativity demonstrates a positive outcome of their confinement, one can’t help but wonder how different – how much better – their lives would have been had they been allowed to grow up freely in one of the most inspiring cities in the world.
Similarly, the detrimental effects of confinement and deprivation of one’s freedom are bypassed by Jafar Panahi in This is Not a Film (2011). Under house arrest, the Iranian director has been banned from making films. With the help of fellow director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and a free interpretation of his official verdict, Panahi circumvents the ban by putting together a film and even smuggling it into Cannes.
Despite the negative connotation that isolation can have, now and in the time to come, we must look to these and other examples as sources of encouragement, and manuals for handling the collective feeling of despair in our current situation. Together with the knowledge that, contrarily to Oh Dae-Su, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.