Trapped! The Cinema of Confinement

News category: General

Still image from 301/302: Courtesy of the Korean Film Archive

Trapped! The Cinema of Confinement responds to life in the time of pandemic through a compendium of stories found in the Korean Film Archive. All of them explore the impact of forced coexistence between characters in confinement. For those of us stuck predominantly indoors, words like ‘space’ and ‘distance’ have quickly changed meaning. In a time of quarantine and self-isolation, proximity has become digital, spatial distancing defining human interaction. The characters in these films are confined by force, religious or societal dogmas, or even by their own psychology. Four rarely screened archival films by renowned Korean directors envision the body dreaming of escape, transgression and even disappearance.

The question around the body underlies the whole concept of this programme. The body as the last frontier that is able to restrict behaviours and define destinies. Along the tumultuous history of South Korean Cinema, there have been numerous stages in which loss, restriction and censorship played a special role in its development. However, its film industry has been able to work creatively whilst contained within these limits using the depiction of the body  as a characteristic symptom to glimpse at the restrictions of this political context. Classic titles which illustrate this interrogation of the body include: Madame Freedom (1956), about the openness of social and sexual conventions in a increasingly westernized South Korean society, the memorable Aimless Bullet (1960) where the physical degradation of its protagonists reveals the trauma of the Korean war, or the modern Man with three coffins (1987) where death and the reincarnation of the body accompany the experience of a traveler on the journey of a divided nation. 

The four films of Trapped! The Cinema of Confinement compiled from South Korea’s extensive film history aims to succeed to this canon and extend it with the considerations of the current issue that humanity is surviving through. They also echo our experience as curators working from home to produce an online season able to reach the small screens of South Korean film lovers. As confined bodies, we have had to adapt to coexisting in compact spaces, wishing to climb the walls of our homes, seeing how our mobility was restricted and how we were displaced from public space. The characters in the selected films have stimulated a careful rethink of these often challenging situations by applying historical insight. The Korean Film Archive has revealed to us valuable titles where the desire for freedom means more than going beyond the limits of a wall.

The online programme that we are launching entails a thrilling travel from the most physically enclosed stories towards impressive spacious outdoors settings. The viewer will move from the enclosed spaces of 301/302 and the societal pressure on the female body revealed in eating habits and cooking, to the confinement of Eunuch and the exploration of sexual and social constraints weighing upon women. The mountainous setting of Transgression will serve as a contrast to the indoor dramas but will continue the discussion of people being under pressure — now through the strictness of the religious dogma. Sopyonje, the most well-known film in the selection, will present a different dynamic in terms of confinement — the forced proximity against the background of the travelogue.

Working  in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Centre UK, we, а collective of Birkbeck students from the MA Film Programming and Curating and MA Screen and Media Studies, have utilised the extensive resources of the Korean Film Archive to curate this online four film programme. Curating the Korean Film Archive is a particularly valuable mission in the times of lockdown since its carefully preserved digital versions allow the much-desired journey out of our rooms, minds and cultures. Unlike the plethora of virtual viewing activities urged by the current crisis, the collection of the Korean Film Archive has been nurturing film enthusiasts from all over the world for years. Now it is the time to celebrate it.

Trapped! The Cinema of Confinement will be hosted on the koreanfilm website as well as the KCCUK YouTube channel. Our first recorded introduction is in a playlist followed by 301/302 here.