20th October 2012
The Female Boss <1959>– Director: Han Hyeong-mo. Starring: Jo Mi-ryeong <Joanna Shin>, Lee Soo-ryeon <Kim Yong-ho> and Yoon In-ja <Chief Editor Lim>. DVD Running Time: 105 minutes. Released in Theaters: unknown
Last week, when I reviewed the movie If, I made reference to The Female Boss when comparing when comparing what I felt was an archaic theme in the newer of the two movies. However, after watching The Female Boss after several years of not seeing it, my opinion has changed and this romantic comedy from the 1950’s fares much better than I originally thought and it is unfair to compare If with it. Oh, it does have its moments of sexism by both genders, but these are balanced with a casual sexual equality that that permeates the film.
The movie begins with a brief and hostile encounter between a man and a woman from very different social classes. The man is clearly from the working class– or he would be except,as we learn a few moments after the encounter, he is currently unemployed. The woman is obviously wealthy from the way she is dressed and manner of speaking. She has an English name, Joanna, addresses others with English titles of Mr. Kim or Miss Jang, and feeds her dog Fig Newtons. This surprised me.. I have been in Korea for 18 years now and I have never seen Fig Newtons in the stores around here, but apparently they were available in the late 50s… now I want a fig cookie…
Anyway, the fact that her dog is snacking on such ‘expensive Western cookies that most people can’t afford’–as the angry Yong-ho puts it– she is hogging the public phone with her business calls. The infuriated Yong-ho takes his frustrations out on Mario the dog by kicking him!! The immediately made me dislike him immensely and, what is worse, he is unrepentant. “Why shouldn’t I kick a puppy?” he asks using the above defense that it is eating better than most people. I am not alone in disliking Yong-ho. Joanna shares the sentiment but, when he comes for a job interview for her magazine Modern Woman, she hires him out of spite in order to take revenge on him. At one point, she yells at him for two-hours straight which he is forced to take because, as Yong-ho states, ‘it is her right as the boss.’
As is required in a romantic comedy, two people who hate each other are destined to fall in love. However, Yong-ho is not without rivals for the hand of Joanna as Mr Oh has his sights set on her. Oh is older, foolish, and very wealthy. Joanna has been stringing him along because of the potential help he can be to her magazine. She has successfully published eight issues of Modern Woman, but the latest issue is three months late because she does not have the money to afford the paper she needs to print on. Mr. Oh offers her a solution, but she carefully and craftily manages to secure the paper from him with a promise of ‘no strings attached.’ It is clear that Oh is besotted with her and hardly minds the fact that she is using him and is disappointed when she announces that she does not need his help in paying for the paper when her uncle comes through on an agreement she made with him. Her uncle had asked to borrow Yong-ho for a company basketball game– a part of the movie that seemed endless to me as I hate basketball and almost every basketball movie I have seen seems to end with a three-point shot as the clock runs out.
Joanna and Yong-ho have grown closer over time but their happy ending is delayed as Yong-ho wrestles with the problem of her being his boss–not because she is a woman, but because her behaviour of late has been unbecoming of a company chairperson. However, that is a short-lived glitch and the two are happily married. Joanna chooses to retire and stay home while Yong-ho becomes director of the company. What is interesting here is that retiring from publishing is Joanna’s choice unlike in If where Ha-yeong seems to be bullied into giving into Seon-woo. This point that Joanna is still equal is underscored by a minor character named Miss Jang.
While working in the company under Joanna Shin, Miss Jang began secretly dating photographer Mr. Yang. The company at that time had very strict ‘anti-dating’ policies– Mr Kim is even called on the carpet at one point when it was suspected he was dating a woman who had no connection to the company or publishing at all. Jang becomes pregnant is offers her resignation which Joanna accepts. However, she also orders Yang to resign as well as he broke the n0-dating rule and it would be unfair if Jang bore the full brunt of the punishment on her own when two people were involved. We learn at a later point that Jang and Yang are married. Still later, after Kim Yong-ho has taken over management of Modern Woman, we see that Mrs Jang has been promoted to the number-2 position in the company. Her husband, still a photographer, seems to be taking the lead role in raising their baby when he delivers baby photos to the office. However, it is shown that they are equal partners in their relationship as Yang makes plans to travel down to Masan for a few days with Kim. The sign hanging over Mr Kim’s desk, ‘Men are Superior to Women’ is hung there merely for comedic effect as it replaces the earlier sign which claimed ‘Women are Superior to Men.’ It does not reflect the facts shown nor the theme of the movie which would be that both sexes are equal.
Was this a reflection of society at the time? From the notes I have read regarding women in Korea in the 1950s, it was. Between the end of the Korean War and the military government of the sixties, women did gain ground in society . In ‘56 and article written by Ma Hae-song was published declaring that the Era of Women’s Liberation was at hand because ‘thanks to the democratic world, women can be liberated from age-old restrictions and be free. Men and women are equal.” This is a sentiment that would rarely be seen shown seriously in Korean movies of the succeeding decade, although it would become a favorite topic of the movies of the 90s and in throwbacks like If.
Another thing I found interesting in this story was what happened with Interviewee Number 2–a thing that could never have happened if this film was made just two years later. Interviewee Number 2 is a proud patriot who is made the butt of an extended joke in the film. His extreme nationalism is laughed at by all the workers in the office who hear him–and made to look intentionally foolish by the camera– as he calls upon all young people to rise up and fight the communists. Although Joanna keeps cutting him off and trying to get the interview back on track, this passionate young man cannot keep quiet about the necessity to battle communism. Had this movie been made later, the intentionally ridiculous Interviewee Number 2 would have been the hero of the story and no one, neither characters in the film nor the audience watching, would have laughed at him publicly.
I actually found a lot to like about this film and enjoyed it very much. The Female Boss is on DVD with English subtitles as part of the Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set.