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Bittersweet Joke (aka Miss Mama 미쓰 마마)

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Duane Johansen
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Bittersweet Joke (aka Miss Mama 미쓰 마마)

Paik Yeon-ah’s Bittersweet Joke is a touching and informative 2012 documentary about the struggles faced by “unwed” mothers in South Korea. It is notable for being the first movie about the topic to show the women without any blurring to obscure their faces, such is the strength of the stigma faced by single moms in contemporary Korean society.

The film follows the lives of three women and their children, but the one with the most screen time is Hyung-sook (39), mother to Jun-seo (6). Hyung-sook has become an advocate for single mothers in Korea, working for the Korea Unwed Mothers’ Association (KUMFA). 

Paik does a good job of capturing both the difficult and the rewarding sides of trying to parent alone. There is a wonderful segment where Jun-seo and his mother sing about milk, for example. The women are portrayed as struggling, but not as victims.

At 52-minutes, it can fit into a single class and would make for a good two-day lesson, perhaps an interesting comparison discussion in a sociology or human relations class. It is certainly appropriate for just about any high school humanities course.   

The film can be purchased through Icarus Films at, but a version of it can be streamed at This version features on-screen annotations and hyperlinks that provide additional learning opportunities for students. Teaching resources are also available for teachers who request access. (Full disclosure: This was my project while I was at the University of Illinois).