Origins of Madame Freedom
Madame Freedom was the most popular as well as the most controversial film of its time. The screenplay was based on a serialized novel by Jung Bee-suk. When it was published, the portrayal of women’s new-found sexual freedom aroused bitter criticism. One paper called it “an unforgivable sin to our country and people, and an enemy of the state equal to 500,000 soldiers of the Chinese Communist army.” Nonetheless, sales of newspapers skyrocketed during its serialization and plummeted when the series reached its conclusion. Jung’s writing described Koreans’ infatuation with the new music and dance, savings clubs, as well as with Western fashion and accessories. The story dealt frankly with the inroads Western culture and materialism were making in society, threatening to upset traditional Korean culture. Director Han Hyung-mo correctly guessed that the notoriety of the novel would stimulate interest in the screen adaptation.
Madame Freedom appeared at a time when filmogoers were becoming weary of the large number of historical dramas being produced. Koreans were ready for more engaging work that reflected contemporary life. When American culture was introduced after liberation, dancing became enormously popular, with secret dance halls popping up everywhere. Koreans had endured 35 years of brutal Japanese occupation, during which the only recreation was the theatre or cinema. The exciting rythm of dances such as the jitterbug, the tango and the mambo were all the rage. People who had lived in virtual seclusion all those years were at last free to embrace one another on the dance floor. The craze was not without its detractors, which they said menaced the traditional patriarchal ideas of woman’s place in society, resulting in escalating divorce rates throughout the country. Raids of these dance halls were conducted by the police, and every day newspapers ran articles with photos of dancers covering up their faces from shame and captions reading, “We can’t let this happen!” No sooner did word get out that Madame Freedom was being made into a movie, than speculation about it spread like wildfire. Publicity surrounding the production of the film was high, and understandably anticipation by the public was great. Intellectuals protested the story’s depiction of infidelity by the wife of a university professor, and animated discussions took place as to whether or not the film would escape the censors’ scalpel. During filming, reporters from newspapers across the nation covered the day-to-day progress of the production.
Production Delays, Excessive Costs
Shooting conditions in the immediate post-Korean war years were far from ideal. The devastation included not only the destruction of film equipment, but also the irretrievable loss of a major portion of Korea’s film history. Film stock was in short supply and directors planning to use over 15,000 feet of film simply wouldn’t be contracted by producers. Shooting of most pictures generally took two months, with some directors turning in a finished product in under one month. Han Hyung-mo, who had established himself as one of the pre-eminent cameramen of his day, was also an uncompromising perfectionist. This unsparing attitude toward his craft resulted in the superb films upon which his reputation is based, but also created difficulties. It comes as no great surprise that Han’s project encountered problems, especially considering that he used up to 26,000 feet of film and production took four months: twenty days to build the sets, and another twenty days for the shooting. Han insisted on construction of a crane in order to capture the scenes in the dance hall. This was not only the first Korean film to show a dance hall, it was also the first to use a crane. There were other, more mundane innovations as well. Sets were lighted with 100 watt lights, and because of the lack of electricity, technicians made use of four or five generators. For the snow scene, the crew constructed a screen through which soap powder obtained from the US Army was beaten. Because the flakes tended to fall in straight lines, four huge electric fans blew on the set. In order to prevent the powder from sticking to actors’ faces, the fans had to be turned directly on them. Filming was interrupted when they had run out of soap, only to restart when someone had returned with more. The hiring of professional musicians and dancers, including the risque (in those years) mambo dancer Na Bok-hee put further strains on the budget.
Reception of the Film
Madame Freedom did not pass the censors unscathed, and over 100 feet of film would be cut before it was screened in theatres. Of particular concern to the Ministry of Education were scenes involving kissing and embracing, not to mention the licentiousness of the dancing itself. Han managed to convince the board of the movie’s utility as a lesson in morality. Nevertheless, audiences were enthralled with the depiction of upper-class decadence, as well as with the big band sounds of Park Joo-geun’s musicians. Evidence of Western influences could be seen everywhere in the movie: the dance steps; the fine scarves, hats, and jackets worn by the characters, which could only have been obtained from abroad; and the expensive cosmetics sold in the shop where Oh Sun-young (Kim Jung-rim) worked as a manager. As an interesting aside, it is curious how the Afro-Carribean music heard in the nightclub, itself appropriated by Hollywood films of an earlier era, is associated with “Western” culture. English expressions such as “excuse me” and “I love you” are heard throughout the film. Additionally, the audience, accustomed to static shots, saw the lively camera movements made possible by Han’s creative use of dolly and crane. In the end, the film was highly profitable both for Han’s production company and for Samsung Film Company, which invested the returns from the drama in the construction of two studios, the first to be built on the peninsula. Madame Butterfly would be the picture to inaugurate the new lot. Eventually, six sequels to Madame Freedom were produced, but none captured more realistically than the original the social aspects of the times.
The transfer of the film is perfectly adequate considering the condition of the source materials. By making restorations of archival films like Madame Freedom available on DVD, KOFA is rendering a great service both to Korea’s cultural heritage and to film lovers alike. Though lacking the limitless resources of outfits like Criterion, KOFA has done a fine job and it is hoped that we will see many more releases similar to this in the future. The documentation accompanying the features, including bilingual booklets with extensive background information, filmed interviews with leading scholars, actors and crew members, and budget pricing make the recommendation of the releases in this series an easy one.
South Korea | 1956 | Directed by Han Hyeong-Mo | Starring Park Am, Kim Jung Rim
Studio: Spectrum DVD
Subtitles: Korean, English
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
Format: 4:3 Fullscreen
Encoding: NTSC All-Region
Special Features: Interview with actor Lee Min, Kim Jong-won on Madame Freedom, Interview with art director Noh In-taek, Stills Gallery, Poster for film, Cast and Crew bio’s