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Starbucks morality: a review of Han Hyeong-mo’s Madame Freedom (1956)

Han Hyeong-mo: Madame Freedom (1956)

Round 2 of the Korean classic film double bill…

In Shin Sang-ok’s 1961 film which formed the first part of the double bill on 5 November, a widow cannot talk to a man outside her family, and is expected to obey her mother-in-law. Admittedly, the film is set in the Korean countryside, rather than the metropolis, but the conservative morality is the sort that you expect to see in many Korean films.

Wind back the clock 5 years to Han Hyeong-mo’s Madame Freedom and the shock of that film becomes apparent. A couple kiss in the street, even though, according to the male, their relationship is purely casual. Women gather together for drinking and smoking parties. A married woman pops around to her (single, male) next door neighbour for one-on-one dancing lessons.

Madame Freedom (screen grab by

Admittedly we are in Seoul, where morals might be thought to be slightly more relaxed than in the “backward” countryside, but even so the freedom enjoyed by everyone is not so far from that enjoyed today. The coffee shop as a place where secret assignations can be held, away from work colleagues or one’s spouse; the dance club as a place where one can mix with members of the opposite sex with ease — even if one is married; men and women, married — but not to each other, bantering with each other about becoming lovers; the obsession with the new, the stylish, the best regardless of cost, especially if it’s from America: all of these aspects of a certain side of mid-1950s Seoul might not be out of place in 21st century Apgujeong.

To a 21st century viewer the film seems surprisingly modern. There’s lots of humour in the story (the neglected boy waiting for his mother to come home, dutifully doing his homework until she does), there’s a number of different sub-plots, there’s wit in the soundtrack (“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun” plays ironically in the coffee shop as things are just about to turn ugly for our heroine). Most surprising of all is the seeming lack of moral condemnation of anyone’s acts implied in the film. The heroine is criticized more for neglecting her son than cheating on her husband, and there’s certainly no criticism for her wanting to get a job to earn money.

Madame Freedom (screen grab by

So if this is a modern film, with modern morality, how does it stack up against other films in the Festival? Maybe an unfair comparison, but its sensitivity and complexity puts it leagues ahead of such generic gangster flicks as A Dirty Carnival, the movie which opened the following night’s double bill at the Barbican.


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