Like many a writer about film, I have stored multiple film retrospective ideas in my mental database ready to query whenever a programmer finally asked me for selections. A few months ago, that query finally came. Along with nine others, I was asked to select a single title to present as part of the Bay Area Now 7: “Invasion of the Cinemaniacs” film and video series at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts running from July 20th-September 25th. One film?! That’s some kinda pressure. Here is how I came to my decision to bring Han Hyeong-mo’s 1956 melodrama classic Madame Freedom, where a housewife steps into the working world of a rapidly modernizing South Korea and discovers the surrounding pleasures of cafes, dancehalls and the men found within while risking the loss of her family.
My interests in cinema have been varied. But it was clear I had to bring a South Korean film. I had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late nineties just as what is now called CAAMFest (Center for Asian American Media’s festival) was presenting a retrospective on the works of Jang Sun-woo. I was mesmerized with To You, From Me (1994) and other films by Jang. This was followed up by the San Francisco International Film Festival‘s retrospective on Im Kwon-taek, where I finally got to see the classic Sopyonje (1993) that college friends had told me about a few years before. Impressed by these two auteurs, I began to wonder why these films had been kept from me for so long. And then I saw Hong Sang-soo‘s The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) and I decided to devote most of my writing to South Korean films since not much information was available in English on the country’s cinema at the time. I began writing for Darcy Paquet’s website Koreanfilm.org early on, before South Korean film broke internationally with Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, 1999) then with My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-Young, 2001) and most forcefully with Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003). I began to meet scholars such as Kyu Hyun Kim and Kyung Hyun Kim to learn from their insights, traveling down to the latter’s retrospectives at UC Irvine to meet directors Kim Hong-joon and Hong Sang-soo. I took a couple trips to the Far East Film Festival in Udine, the Busan International Film Festival when it was PIFF, and the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul to revel in South Korean films I couldn’t see elsewhere.
Having whittled matters down to selecting a South Korean film, I decided to bring a representative film title that had been neglected in the Bay Area. This quickly led to a decision that the film had to be from the “Golden Age of South Korean Cinema” from 1955-1972. In the process, I was reminded of why some films are neglected. Although I may have seen prints of older films at the Far East Film Festival or at the Busan International Film Festival, some of those older films had English subtitles projected on them, not part of the print. In our pursuit of a significant older South Korean film, we were having trouble locating prints with subtitles. As much as I prefer celluloid prints to digital, knowledge of how such obstacles can prohibit access to films is what keeps me from complaining too much on what’s “lost” from digital screenings. I prefer celluloid, but I understand the reasons for digital.
Thankfully, although my first choice didn’t appear as if it would be fruitful, a print with English subtitles of Han Hyeong-mo’s classic melodrama, Madame Freedom, was found. Melodrama has been a significant part of Korean cultural forms at least ever since the production of the theatrical shinpa plays, so much so that melodrama seeps into other genres such as horror and war films. The matriarch of melodramas is arguably Han’s Madame Freedom. And in the excellent resource South Korean Golden Age Melodramas: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema (Eds. Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelmann, Wayne State University Press, 2006), Sooyoung Kim credits the box office success of Madame Freedom and The Story of Ch’un-hyang (Yi Kyu-hwan, 1955) with bringing South Korean Cinema into existence. Perhaps we wouldn’t have Old Boy if it weren’t for the old girl Madame Freedom?
Although the realism masterpiece Stray Bullet (Yu Hyon-mok, 1960) would have been another option, would have been another option, particularly because 2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the film screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I leaned toward Madame Freedom because of the condescending treatment melodrama often receives. Part of this lack of esteem likely has to do with issues of sexism, contempt for “women’s” “weepies.” But it also may have to be with discomfort in that early melodramas require lessons learned of their female protagonists, often lessons at the expense of female agency. That syllabus is clearly a part of Madame Freedom, as Han himself said at the time in a partial effort to thwart off efforts to censor the film, “. . . If the audience saw any scenes of deviation, they will accept it as a lesson, which means this film could be a good, enlightening film” (from the pamphlet included in the Korean Film Archive Collection DVD).
In spite of that melodrama malady, let me pose a different frame of possible freedoms for our lead character in Madame Freedom than the conservative ones requiring the containment of women preferred by Han and the censors. In Steven Chung’s wonderful book Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-ok and Postwar Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), there is a photo from the same year of the release of Madame Freedom, 1956, by photographer Im Ung-sik. It is a classic photograph seen to represent South Korea’s emerging future against her disappearing past. In the left of the frame, you see four South Korean women in western dresses holding umbrellas as parasols to protect them from the sun. To the right, leaving the frame, is a woman in a hanbok, the traditional dress for a Korean woman. This photo is seen by many as a clear signification of the modernization of South Korea through women’s sartorial choices. The women to the left are seen as The Future in western dress, the woman on the right is The Past in traditional Korean clothing. The Future is standing in place, secure in its position. The Past is leaving the frame, almost rushing out of the picture.
Yet Chung nudges us to see something deeper, something more complicated than this Manichean binary. Chung asks us to look at the right sleeve of the hanbok. It is translucent. It is translucent because it is made of nylon, a material brought to South Korea from the West. As a result, Chung states “The woman is therefore not as behind, and the young women not as far in the vanguard as the photo might suggest at first blush.” Chung’s analysis asks us to look at the fabric of the photo more carefully before we hold absolute signifiers of a tradition/modern binary. The person who looks “backward” in this photo is actually, subtly, looking forward. And since parasols have been carried for a few hundred years by Korean women to maintain the light skin valued by social prejudices, the “modern” women in the photo are still connected to the past as well. The binary becomes much more complicated as Chung pushes us to reexamine what the photo, through its fabric, reveals.
A similar dualism is something we often find ourselves applying to the moral clarity of melodramas. Kathleen McHugh mentions that, along with allowing women to be economic beings, many South Korean melodramas might not have moral ambiguity, but they are more complex because the reality they inhabit is more stark. In the specific case of Madame Freedom, it represents the pace of the rushed modernism of the time. In addition, McHugh notes there is a constant female-to-female gaze that would be hard to find in many Hollywood melodramas. McHugh also pinpoints the origins of the turning point in Madame Freedom, the mambo jazz club scene, as arising from melodramas of Mexico’s Golden Age, not Hollywood’s.
Madame Freedom became my perfect choice because it’s the definitive melodrama that displays how South Korea refashioned the form. Inspired by Chung’s analysis, in spite of the regressive demands of melodrama we still find in Madame Freedom, the film becomes richer when we frame our focus outside what we think we know about melodramas. Look for the fissures in the text, or to work off Chung’s example, the translucence in the fabric, which allows the progressive possibilities underneath to come into view momentarily in spite of the requirements of the genre or the gendered nation to cover those possibilities up. South Korean women were able to revel in the modern music, clothes and lifestyles for brief moments, establishing their own narratives of possibility on the screen, before the genre returned to close up the cafe or shut down the dancehall. Some audience members watching the Gangnam Style of their day left with some of the sum of its parts, rather than the narrative’s full closure. Some folks privately weaved these cinematic swatches of rebellious fabric into the larger outfit they had to wear to save face in public. If anything, the mambo dancehall scene would stay echoing in their ears well after they stored away their dancing shoes.