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Korea's Golden Age

Postwar Korean cinema came into full bloom with two box-office hits that helped to build an initial cottage film industry: Yi Kyu-whan's Ch'unhyangjon (The Tale of Ch'un-hyang, 1955), the well-known Confucian narrative about love and womanly devotion, and Han Hyong-mo's Chayubuin (Madame Freedom, 1956), a film whose protagonist is also a woman, although in this case, a modern, Westernized woman. It is interesting to note that both films reflect the shifting identities of women during this time. 

From the mid-1950s to late 1960s, films targeting female audiences were known either as "rubber shoes" (an expression indicating woman of lower class backgrounds), "tearjerkers" or simply as "melo" (short for melodrama). The "melo" (drama) genre was conceived as an outlet for women's repressive experiences under Neo-Confucian patriarchy: these films aimed to provide the release of woman's han (or grief). Bitter But Once Again, (Miwodo tashihanbon, 1968), in particular, is a good example of this genre. Another breakthrough Film, Shin Sang-ok's The Houseguest and My Mother (Sarangbang sonnimgwa Comoni, 1961), based on Shu Yo's best-selling novel bearing the same name, is also a classic example of the film industry's interest in women. 

Set in 1920s, the film explores the delicate subject-matter of the role of the widow in Korean culture. The story is about a household in which two generations of widows reside: the heroine (Ch'oe EUn-hui) and her young daughter and her mother-in-law. When a painter friend of the heroine's deceased husband comes to town, the two women offer him lodging in their home. A mutual attraction develops between the heroine and the painter; however, instead of allowing herself to consummate her passion, the heroine instead withdraws from the relationship, citing the traditional Confucian precepts against remarriage. The film suggest a critical view of her choice and the Confucian world-view which encouraged her to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of an antiquated custom.

While The Houseguest and My Mother employs a rather indirect means of raising the issue of women's remarriage, Pak Nam-Cok's The Widow (Mimang-in, 1953), the first feature length film ever made by a woman film-maker, connects this custom to other aspects of Korean traditional life, including women's economic dependence, motherhood and female sexuality.

Madame Freedom was a huge box-office hit when it was released. Based on a serial novel, it caused a heated controversy among Korean intellectuals due to its scandalous representation of a professor's wife. From the perspective of the Korean film industry, however, it played a crucial role in developing Korean cinema. In striking contrast to the widow character in The Houseguest and My Mother, the wife and mother character in Madame Freedom momentarily enjoys freedom outside home. 

Woman's sexual freedom, here linked to American consumeristic culture, also plays into the sub-plot of the Madame Freedom figure. In its attempt to come to terms with modernity, Korean cinema has traditionally focused on representations of modern female figures, and in particular, their sexuality, which are depicted as both dangerous and desirable. On the other hand, films such as The Stray Bullet (Obalt'an, Yu Hyon-mok, 1961), Barefoot Youth (Maenbarui ch'aongch'un, Kim Ki-dok, 1964) and The Coachman (Mabu, Kang Tae-jin, 1961) investigate the anxiety of the marginalized disempowered urban male during the socially unstable period of the 1960s.

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