Sweet Dream – the Korean melodrama that warns women against modern life

An indelible example of early Korean melodrama, Sweet Dream is the product of a time of anxiety about how modern ways were corrupting traditional gender roles. Does this Madame Bovary story still have anything to tell us?

Cathy Brennan

Sweet Dream (1936)

Sweet Dream (1936)

An early surviving piece of Korean cinema, Sweet Dream is a prime example of melodrama, telling a tale of marital dissatisfaction and yearning. However, the Bovary-esque figure here is more of a caricature, illustrating the cultural politics of its time.

Ae-sun (Mun Ye-bong) is the unhappy wife of a serious-minded husband. She’d rather go shopping than care for her young daughter Jeong-hee. Longing for a life of sexual adventure and excitement, Ae-sun abandons her family in order to shack up with a petty criminal she mistakes for a rich man. When Ae-sun realises the potential dangers of this new life, she rats her lover out to the police and takes a taxi back to her family. Rather than affording her a chance at redemption, the story punishes her, as the taxi accidentally runs over her daughter, driving the now guilt-stricken Ae-sun to suicide.

The message in Sweet Dream is clear. Throughout the film there is a recurring image of a bird trapped in a cage; an easily identifiable symbol of the domestic servitude expected of women like Ae-sun. Rather than a poignant portrayal of women’s oppression, the birdcage is an argument for the confines of traditional gender roles. Sweet Dream was a response to anxieties around the effects of modernity on women. Activities like shopping at department stores and even going to the cinema were associated with modern girls.

Sweet Dream (1936)

Sweet Dream (1936)

By the early 1930s, women’s magazines would regularly feature articles on film, demonstrating the vitality of female audiences in colonial Korea. 1916 saw the introduction of women’s sections in cinemas, though these regulations were not strictly enforced by managers, likely to maximise ticket sales.

Commentators of the time fretted over the popularity of cinema among women. The overt sexuality displayed by American film stars like Clara Bow was thought to be a corrupting influence on female audiences. One commentator described the “shocking” sound of “gasping shrieks” emanating from the seats of young married women during kissing scenes. According to Kim Dong-hoon (whose invaluable research informs much of this article), such anxieties about women’s participation in modern cultural life stemmed from a fear that “society and the state were no longer able to control women’s sexuality”.

With this is in mind, the portrayal of Ae-sun’s affair and eventual suicide is an attempt to remind women in the audience to know their place. The man she elopes with introduces himself as a chivalrous gentleman returning her purse, even though he was the one who stole it in the first place. This scene takes place in a department store, linking Ae-sun’s naivety to her selfish materialism.

Sweet Dream (1936)

Sweet Dream (1936)

Ironically, Sweet Dream was produced as a propaganda film, but the messaging was about the importance of automobile safety. However, Ae-sun’s suicide is motivated more by disgust at her own depravity and what it has cost her. This cruel ending delivers a didactic message urging women to reject the seductive pleasures offered by modernity and instead embrace the traditional roles of wife and mother.

Against the backdrop of Japanese rule, Ae-sun’s story fuses gender and national politics. Cartoons of the time would ridicule women like Ae-sun for buying into modern trends. A strip published in 1933 depicts a woman who winds up having her leg amputated for daring to try on high heel shoes. Such mocking portrayals were meant to convey the message that women should not get above their station. This paternalistic attitude towards women somewhat mirrors the dynamic between the Japanese colonisers and the Koreans they subjugated.

Like Ae-sun, many Koreans did not take their oppression lying down. In 1919, a mass protest forced the Japanese to introduce reforms to make Japanese rule less ham-fisted: new businesses no longer required government permission and censorship was relaxed somewhat. However, with the 1931 integration of Manchuria into the yen-bloc, official efforts to assert Japanese cultural supremacy became more pronounced.

Sweet Dream (1936)

Sweet Dream (1936)

By 1935, it was mandatory for Koreans to worship at shinto shrines, despite the sizeable Christian population. Koreans often went unrepresented in Japanese legislature, and intermarriage was discouraged. Furthermore, the Korean language was gradually banned in key aspects of public life, such as government and school. This can be seen in the 1941 film Tuition, which depicts a group of Korean children who must speak Japanese in the classroom to their Japanese teacher.

Such paternal policies sought to integrate Koreans into the larger Japanese Empire. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the repression of women’s cultural activity and the repression of Korean identity at the time Sweet Dream was made.

For modern British audiences watching Sweet Dream it can be all too easy to dismiss the film’s message as emblematic of a backward thinking. Such a smug, Orientalist reading would miss Sweet Dream’s relevance today. By unpacking the social messaging embedded within this 80-year-old film we could perhaps learn to cast a more critical eye on the messaging found in contemporary cinema culture during these politically fraught times.

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