MADAME FREEDOM (1956)
This 1950s melodrama charts a wife’s taste of independence during the backdrop of the increasing Westernisation of Korea
Voted the fourth greatest Korean film ever by the Korean Film Archive, Madame Freedom sees a housewife making the most of being unshackled from her surly professor husband.
A first it seems to portray the strains of keeping an indifferent marriage together, especially as both parties pursue any flicker of love interest elsewhere. The final message is very much one of structural maintenance and the family unit though.
The film opens on Oh Seon-yeong (Kim Jeong-rim) ironing on the floor, as husband Jang (Park Am) ignores his pleas to help their son on his homework. Seon-yeong then begs for an opportunity to take a job as a clerk in what the husband dismissively calls a “Western-style” store.
Told she’s free to decide about the job offer herself, Seon-yeong takes the role providing French and American perfumes and cosmetics as Korea embraces the American mall culture that would later grow across the nation.
Seon-yeong finds she has no shortage of admirers in the outside world, including the store’s owner and most persuasively the family’s playboy neighbour. Professor Jang is simultaneously attracted to his student (Yang Mi-hui).
Married husbands openly discuss their girlfriends and berate tardy wives, while women’s groups gather to plot nights away from their draconian men. For a modern audience it seems a study in male power and their role in the institution of marriage.
It is likely that some male viewers of the time would have viewed Seon-yeong's freedom as
the catalyst for her actions, despite a seemingly loveless marriage being the greater cause of
her head turning.
Released in 1956, the same year president Syngman Rhee is reelected, it displays a South just three years after the end of conflicts in the Korean war and grappling with the growing influence of the West.
The wares of Seon-yeong's store are viewed with indifference by her professor husband and excitement by various patrons. “Foreign food” is a lunchtime option, including a place which does a great “Mexican salad”.
Beautifully shot by Han Hyung-mo, the film’s backdrops come alive in almost every scene. Shots from within the store frame a hectic outside world while constant traffic humming and car beeps bring the city setting alive.
What Director Han also does expertly is bring the film’s various strands together in a drama-filled final act that outpaces the gradual story building that precedes it. A stunning snow-filled closing shot deserves special mention for its iconic imagery.
Despite the prominence of the female protagonists throughout, the film’s major take home is not a feminist one. The women who pursue financial independent and the love they are starved of at home do not ride into the sunset.
For that reason, Madame Freedom must be viewed as a product of its time. The far more
timeless component is Director Han crisp handling of every shot and ability to give the film atmosphere throughout.