1970 had been a difficult year for Lee Man-hee. A conflict on the set of The Goboi Bridge in which Lee intended to star against the advice of his regular team resulted in the end of his creative relationship with screenwriter Baek Gyeol and cinematographer Lee Suck-ki. Meanwhile, he’d also suffered a crisis in his personal life after parting ways with actress Moon Jeong-suk who had been both a lover and a muse. To top it all off he also had some financial problems and didn’t work at all for the year following Goboi Bridge’s release – a significant period of time in the high-speed world of early ‘70s Korean cinema in which it was not unheard of for a director to make as many as 10 films in one year. Break Up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Shwisaseuleul Geunheola) was intended to be something of a “come back” but it finds Lee defeated, doing what he does best but also playing the game he never really wanted to play in succumbing to the patriotism epic (albeit a little tongue in cheek).
Riffing off Sergio Leone, Lee frames his resistance romp as a Manchurian western. A mysterious golden Buddhist statue has more than just monetary value as it also contains a list of the names of resistance operatives which can be revealed with the use of a special chemical formula. Three men are after it – Cheol-su (Namkoong Won), an adventurer for hire who might or might not be working for the resistance; Tae-ho (Jang Dong-hwi), a petty gangster; and Dal-geon (Heo Jang-kang), a collaborator working with the Japanese. The men are each interested in the statue for selfish reasons – Cheol-su for his reputation, Tae-ho for the money, and Dal-geon for the prestige. None of them is interested in the resistance movement itself, the statue’s importance in relation to it, or anything really beyond themselves and their day-to-day lives.
Of course, as this is a patriotism epic, the men eventually come round to the greatness of Korea as their individual quests converge and they find themselves alongside the resistance surrounded by the Japanese. The Japanese are largely a bumbling bunch who remain unaware of the statue’s “real” power even whilst holding it, thinking only of its monetary value as a lump of gold or work of art they could export abroad for financial gain. Confronted and faced with failure, the leader of the Japanese is firstly humiliated by his defeat at the hands of the resistance but then decides to show them the greatness of the Japanese army by committing Harakiri right there on the spot. Stripping off the captain begins to get cold feet, suddenly struck by the enormity of the moment when one of his lieutenants draws his sword ready for the beheading. The Japanese captain then seems to come down with “a cold” and resolves to visit the medical tent instead.
The early drama revolves around the interplay of the three self-interested outsiders as they scheme and plot to make use of each other and get the statue for themselves. Of the three, Cheol-su emerges as the most “noble” even though his quest is mercenary enough – his name is his business and thus he wants the statue to fulfil his contract and maintain his sense of integrity as a gun for hire. Tae-ho is merely interested in financial gain with a mild desire for social revenge and the thrill of outsmarting a rival, but both men are filled with an intense distaste for men like Dal-geon who have “betrayed” the countrymen they too have refused to serve. That aside, Tae-ho and Dal-geon begin to form a weak alliance of the opportunistic as they bond in their mercenary intentions, while Cheol-su lingers on the outside as his quest ties him more closely with the independence movement. Eventually the trio realise they have to work together to get the statue, even if their ultimate intention is to double cross the others and keep it for themselves. They do however suddenly rediscover their patriotic spirit, resolving to give the statue to the people who need to most while they ride off into the sunset in search of other ways to serve their country.
Set in dusty Manchuria (where the resistance movement operated in exile), Break Up the Chain is part of the short-lived boom of Korean “westerns” which were popular in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Lee abandons his experimental ambitions and aims squarely for the populist, reaching only for post-modern irony in his boys own adventure story filled with feats of daring do and flight on horseback. Yet he comforts himself with that sense of irony, pulling away from the absurd adventures of our heroes to show the faces of men dying in snow reminding us that their flight from the horror of war was perhaps a rational one rather than an act of cowardice or a failure of patriotism. Nevertheless, Lee seems to be at odds with himself as he gives in (to a point) and presents a silly story of amoral chancers suddenly rediscovering their “Koreanness” in the barren wastelands of Manchuria but does so with a sense of bitterness which conspires to rob the tale of its childish sense of fun.
Available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.