The movie Madame Freedom was an extremely controversial film that went to define the emerging South Korean melodrama genre at the time. It was a film that sought to explore Korea’s identity regarding family structure, relationships, and gender roles. Geopolitical history had resulted in a sudden flood of Western influences into South Korea which introduced new lifestyle, fashion, and sexual exploration. The film served as an intricate analysis of how Western culture promoting feminism and materialism could destabilize traditional Korean values.
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The central theme of the film focuses on deviation from traditional values, be feminism, sexual exploration, or materialism. It posed a very critical question for Korean society of whether modernization necessarily led to the controversial lifestyle brought with Western influences.
The film was controversial for Korean cinema at the time, showing aspects of relationships and sexual objectification not seen on screen. In addition, the director utilized several new techniques such using a crane, powerful lighting equipment, and special effects to create the motion picture. The film used authentic imagery and sounds to portray the Western lifestyle through elaborate sets and live performances.
Similar to much of Korean cinema of the time, the film explores social divide and disorientation occurring during a cultural transition. Traditional values are unable to adapt to changing social perceptions. “Madame Freedom depicts women’s sexual independence and vulnerability as inextricable from their much more positively valued financial abilities, status, and concerns, precisely what takes them outside the domestic sphere in the first place” (McHugh, 2005, p. 29). The scene at the nightclub is a pivotal example of transformation of the character while serving as a symbol for Korea’s emergence in the global context that results in this dichotomy of cultures. Feminism and female freedoms in this context are associated more with sexuality rather than professional development.
There is an examination of Western influences on Korea in the film. Much of the plot is concerned with materialism and social status which has been defined by the newest American trends in clothing, jewelry, and music. The characters mention America as a place of desire. “The slavish valorization of Western goods, language, and activities, their inflated but ultimately empty value narrativized in the film” (McHugh, 2005, p. 32).
The change is most evident in Seon-Yeong who begins the film as a humble wife in traditional Korean clothing and transitions to a more glamorous outfit. The plot emphasizes that this served as the reason for her moral downfall and almost led to the destruction of her family. Her character serves as a pitiful example for the society of the dangers hiding within Western influences. The film’s ending is symbolic as the viewers’ perspective is directed at Seon-Yeong begging to be let into the house from the vantage point of the doorway. It is representative of personal and cultural devastation that arrives with adopting foreign values. The film ends without ever showing her entering the home, an allegory for the uncertainty facing South Korea going forward.
McHugh, K. (2005). South Korea film melodrama: State, nation, woman, and the transnational familiar. In K. McHugh & N. Abelmann (Eds.), South Korean golden age melodrama: Gender, genre, and national cinema (pp. 17-36). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.