August 4, 2015 – 5:04 am

Jeong In-yeob’s Madame Aema (1982) might be known as the most sexually explicit Korean movie when it was first released but it’s really more in the mind. Seen today, it’s more sexually suggestive than anything really explicit. Stephen Tan reviews.

Okay, this one’s for the archivist and collectors.

By the late 1970s the Korean movie industry was panicking. Korean cinema was dying, and this crisis had come out of the blue… The 1972-1979 Yushin dictatorship enforced strict censorship rules, and this made work difficult for many directors. However, by far the more important factor was the explosive growth of TV. Over the same period, from 1969 to 1975, TV ownership increased almost tenfold, from to 224,000 to 2.1 million sets. People did not go to cinema any more: they preferred to watch serials at home instead…

In 1980 General Chun Doo Hwan became the new military strongman, and his administration made it clear that it would encourage the growth of TV - perhaps, on the assumption that this would distract people from politics. In this desperate situation, the Korean producers found a solution, as old as humanity itself - sex.

In early 1982, Jeong In-yeob’s Madame Aema, the most sexually explicit Korean movie then, hit the theaters. To everybody’s surprise, the censors did not ask too many questions. The government’s only interference was to change the Chinese characters used in the film’s title. A box-office hit, it was one of only two films to sell more than 100,000 tickets in Seoul in 1982. - wikipedia/koreatimes.co.kr

Jeong In-yeob’s Madame Aema has not dated well. Looking at the film today, one realises how times have changed. What was “sexually explicit” in 1982 is really tame today. There is some partial nudity but not even a stray nipple in sight! And the sex scenes are all close ups - which forces actress Ahn So-young (as the titular Madame Aema) to emote as much as possible. This might have been titillating at the beginning but, after all a while, you’d rather see something more. Which makes the movie sexually suggestive than explicit.

In 2007, The Korean Times wrote: “Not much can be said about its plot which is, for all practical purposes, absent.” In a nutshell:

Oh Su-bi’s husband, Shin Hyun-wu, is in jail for involuntary manslaughter. For the past three years, Su-bi has visited her husband every week. Though she is anguished by Hyun-wu’s affairs, Su-bi is unable to divorce him even though everyone thinks she should. While visiting her husband, Su-bi meets Kim Dong-yub, a pottery student.

Su-bi runs into an old boyfriend, Kim Mun-ho, who lives in the same apartment complex. One night, Mun-ho breaks into Su-bi’s apartment and the two have sex. Finding Mun-ho unbearable, Su-bi seeks out Dong-yub, who promises to take her to France. However, the day they are supposed to leave for France, Hyun-wu is released from jail on a special pardon; and Su-bi decides to stay with her husband.

Looking very European with a loungey soundtrack (practically filled with coo-ing vocals, if one can imagine that), Madame Aema owes its debt to both Japanese pink eiga (soft porn) and the French Emmanuelle (1974) which the title hints at. Considering that this was a start, filmmaker Jeong In-yeob probably veered on the defensive - hence the lack of frontal or total nudity and that the sex scenes are actually a let down!

It is the opening title sequence that gives viewers an idea of what to expect - actress Ahn So-young in slow-motion turning her head (she could have been doing a shampoo ad!). It is a solitary shot and you’d kind of know that it’s more of a teasing game.

Still, the film should be credited for making Su-bi a sexually-charged person rather than someone who is submissive. Until she meets up with Mun-ho and Dong-yub, one can understand her frustrations which can only be eased when she masturbates (not shown - but indicated as sexual fantasies). If that doesn’t work, there’s always acupuncture to ease the frustration. Again, to director Jeong’s credit, he is not afraid to imply a lesbian relationship between Su-bi and her (possibly) best friend. The two get down on it but what you get is a coy cutaway to some horses! (It is the best friend, while not having a fling with a man of her own, who has the hots for Su-bi.)

And Su-bi’s sex drive is so high that her husband thinks she should see a doctor (and that’s the crux of the problem between the couple). It is instead, her husband, Hyun-wu, who is badly written. What kind of man/husband would leave his hot wife (who is also dutiful as hell) for some mistress outside?

Unfortunately, the film ends on an ambiguous note. By returning to her philandering husband, Su-bi accepts the status quo and her cycle of hell but since she has already tasted “freedom,” the option of finding her own happiness remains open.

However, Madame Aema does manage to highlight different perspectives of love and sex - Su-bi’s lust, which can only be assuaged by physical sex; Mun-ho’s obsession with Su-bi (which is fuelled by the memories of the good times they had together in the past); Dong-yub’s innocent love; and Hyun-wu’s carnality. While this helps to provide some inklings into the characters, the characters themselves don’t really resonate and, sadly, they don’t leave much of an impact.

By most reckoning, Jeong In-yeob’s Madame Aema was a fantastic start to the Korean sex movie industry. It was successful enough to inspire at least 10 sequels, making it the longest-running series in the history of Korean cinema. It gave an idea of what the censors could tolerate; and allowed others such as Kim Ki-duk to push the boundaries as in The Isle (2000) or Jang Sun-wu with his BDSM-laced Lies (1999).

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