Madame Freedom

European Premiere | Out Of Competition | Restored Classics | 50/50: Celebrating 50 Years of Korean Film Preservation


Perhaps the most influential film release of the 1950s was Madame Freedom, an adaptation of a wildly successful and controversial novel that was published in 215 parts in Seoul Newspaper in 1954. (In an age before the widespread dissemination of television, serial novels occupied a similar space in the culture as today’s TV series). The novel sparked debate because of its decadence, with its consumerist culture and its depiction of young protagonists frequenting Western-style dance halls without their spouses. It functioned as a kind of escapist fantasy for many Seoul residents, who were mired in poverty during the aftermath of the Korean War of 1950-53. But it also dramatized one of the key fault lines running through society at that time – the tension between traditional Korean values and customs (which had been upended by colonization and war) and a more Western lifestyle that was taking hold as the nation rebuilt itself. In 1950s Korean cinema as a whole, and in this film especially, this tension is embodied in the female characters, torn between tradition and the lure of freedom.

The story focuses on Madame Oh Sun-young, who has what most of her contemporaries would consider to be an enviable life: married to a successful professor, with a young son, living in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of postwar Seoul. When she is offered a job selling imported luxury goods at a new store, she convinces her husband to let her take it. The job opens up a new world to Madame Oh, introducing her to a range of new people and social activities. Gradually we see her start to transform under the influence of her new acquaintances, but with new opportunities come new temptations which threaten to end in scandal. Meanwhile, her husband has also started tutoring secretaries after work, and drawing closer to one woman in particular.

Director Han Hyeong-mo, who had trained as a cinematographer in Japan in the early 1940s, amassed all of his experience and know-how to create a film that, for the 1950s Korean audience, would offer up a sense of spectacle. Aware that most viewers would have never seen or experienced spaces like the Western dance hall that serves as the film’s major set piece, Han devoted considerable resources to sets, props and costumes. Since no camera cranes existed in the industry at that time, he had one custom built so as to introduce complex camera movements and expand the gaze of the audience. He also recruited one of the best-known bands of the time and a famous mambo dancer to appear in the dance hall scenes.

Madame Freedom’s box office success was considerable and groundbreaking at a time when the local film industry was still piecing itself together after the war. Scathing reviews accusing the film of being immoral only added to its popularity. Although Chunhyang Story (1955), an adaptation of a famous folk tale, had enjoyed commercial success the year before, the triumph of a contemporary-set story that explored present-day issues was something entirely new, and would serve as a model going forward. This was the first unmistakable sign that the film industry was modernizing and finding its feet, and sure enough, Korean cinema would very soon enter its first golden era.

Darcy Paquet
Film director: HAN Hyeong-mo
Year: 1956
Running time: 126'
Country: South Korea
01/05 - 2:00 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
01-05-2024 14:00 01-05-2024 16:06Europe/Rome Madame Freedom Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine
Online in Italy until the end of the Festival