Break up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Lee Man-hee, 1971)

Break Up the Chain poster1970 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.

The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들 / 金薬局의딸들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1963)

Daughters of Kim's Pharmacy poster“Literary Film” had become a kind of genre of its own in Korean cinema, both embracing and rejecting the nation’s taste for melodrama with differing degrees of artiness. Director Yu Hyun-mok, however, was not generally associated with the kind of affectation coupled intense sentimentality that sometimes marked the worst examples of the genre but with a unique brand of cinematic realism which attempted to address the social issues of the day whilst still getting past the censors who were hot on politics but increasingly lax on sex and violence. Nevertheless, The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들, Kim yakgukjib daldeul) is a “literary film” adapted from a novel by Park Gyoung-li and set firmly in the recent past. Yu eventually gives in to the inherent melodrama of a small family battling a legacy of pain and destruction, but tellingly subverts it by discarding the tragic ending of the original novel for something that offers a degree of hope albeit in an all but hopeless world.

The film begins at the close of the Joseon Dynasty as a young man runs into another man’s house and desperately reaffirms his love for a woman who is now married to someone else while he is also married to woman from his village. The woman refuses to see him while he pleads with her, sobbing, but when her husband returns home unexpectedly he doubts his wife’s virtue. Threatening her and then chasing off the lover, the husband kills him by accident and is forced to flee while the woman takes poison and kills herself in her misery leaving her son, who will later become Kim the pharmacist, orphaned and alone, and the family forever “cursed” by her unquiet spirit.

18 years later Kim himself is forced into an arranged marriage which he wanders away from on the wedding day, leaving his aunts to wonder if he hasn’t been “possessed” by the vengeful spirit of his late mother. Despite the “curse” the marriage is successful in that it is not particularly unhappy and produces four daughters who are each of age when the story begins thirty years after Kim’s wedding.

The central heroine, Yong-bin (Um Aing-ran), is a “modern woman” of the colonial era, taking advantage of a shift forward into a progressive new world by leaving her tiny home village for university in Seoul. Though she longs to be free of the primitivism of her origins with its shamanistic rituals and patriarchal traditions, she is also of an elegant, conservative disposition and loves her parents deeply – something that provokes conflict in her desire for the comforts of home and the promise of away.

Of the other three daughters, each represents a particular kind of trap of the age. The oldest, Yong-sook (Lee Min-ja), has given birth to a child out of wedlock and lives alone independently raising her son in penury. Meanwhile third sister Yong-ran (Choi Ji-hee) is no longer a child but continues to loll around the house showing off her legs and posing provocatively. Her father is thinking of marrying her off to a local fisherman who has taken a liking to her, but the plan is scuppered when it is revealed that Yong-ran has been taking frequent nighttime excursions to the graveyard in the forest for secret trysts with one of the servants. When they are discovered, Kim chases the man away leaving Yong-ran publicly shamed and heartbroken. Eventually she is married off to someone befitting her social class only to discover that her new husband is impotent thanks to an opium addiction. She is routinely beaten and abused but can do nothing to escape her life of violence and terror. Yong-oak (Kang Mi-ae), the youngest sister, will eventually suffer a similar fate if one more usual, when she marries Yong-ran’s fisherman suitor only to find him rough and resentful as the fishing industry continues to fluctuate.

When Yong-bin’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) meets her at the harbour on her return from Seoul she mentions the family curse by way of bemoaning their increasing ill fortunes. Yong-bin dismisses her mother’s concerns, preferring to think that its one’s own deeds that determine one’s future, but her mother sadly shakes her head and repeats that it’s all fated. Yong-bin’s modern way of thinking will increasingly come into conflict with her superstitious upbringing, but there’s no denying her family has had a run of bad luck – one which is only set to intensify as time moves on.

This is the central tragedy – the Kim family, trapped in the past, is unable to move beyond its “curse” and whether fated or not is set to destroy itself through outdated thinking. Though it is undoubtedly not the message the film is intended to convey, it’s impossible to ignore the degree of unhappiness which has been caused by the system of arranged marriages and the convention that true feelings must be suppressed in order to maintain ancient social codes. The Kims’ “curse” comes from the death of a woman scorned in love and betrayed by a prideful husband. If only she had been allowed to marry the man she chose, there would be no curse, no violence, no fear. As long as personal happiness is undervalued, there will be only suffering and misery for all but most particularly for the young women of Korea.

Yong-bin, an urban sophisticate, knows this more than most. Her father thinks he ought to marry her off first so he can marry off Yong-ran whose precociousness is beginning to alarm him. Yong-bin, however, wants to finish her education before submitting herself to a lifetime of servitude as someone’s wife and later mother. Her father has his eye on a match – the son of a usurious loanshark who is also a Japanese collaborator. Luckily, Yong-bin likes the man her father has chosen and sees only a romantic fantasy in marrying a childhood friend despite a warning from another mutual acquaintance that Hong-sub is a timid yet ambitious man – a dangerous combination which is unlikely to yield much happiness. She is going to get her heartbroken in more ways than one, her illusions of innocent romantic destiny shattered and her heart wounded by a spiritual as well as physical betrayal by the feckless Hong-sub who turns out to be not the man she thought he was but the one she was warned about.

Yet there is something in Yong-bin’s modernism that cannot be denied. This being the colonial era, the influence of the Japanese is felt even in this tiny village. Kim has sold the family pharmacy because of the influx of Western medicine coming in through Japan. He invested heavily in fishing, but the Japanese are ruining that too through invading local waters and overfishing them. Yet Kim still thinks of himself as a feudal lord with a real duty towards the people of his village. When his boat is ruined in a shipwreck and many sailors killed, he feels he must compensate the victims’ families who are now without the means to support themselves. This leaves him open to exploitation by Hong-sub’s usurious father who is in big with the Japanese who are, to an extent, the route cause of all these problems. Hong-sub’s father laughs when Kim declares his need of extra cash to support those who’ve suffered because of his failed fishing venture, thinking his sense of duty merely stupid but also seeing that it’s another hook for him to exploit that brings him closer to his goal of harnessing Kim’s ancestral estate with its large amount of farmland and property.

The Japanese play into a small sub-plot in which Yong-bin’s cousin (Shin Seong-il) is engaged in the resistance movement and eventually leaves for a covert mission in Japan. Before he leaves he introduces Yong-bin to a friend, Kang-geuk, who has been arrested and is being carted off to Japan for trial but has apparently fallen in love with her based only on his friend’s stories and a photograph. She’s back to a romantic fantasy once again and gravitating towards the spectre of arranged marriage which the film has already done such a great job of discrediting. It is, however, the perfect symbiosis of the film’s themes allowing Yong-bin to embrace both sides of herself. Meeting again after the liberation and a succession of terrible tragedies for the Kim family, Kang-geuk responds to Yong-bin’s intention to leave her hometown forever by asking her to name a place which is not tinged by loss and tragedy, and of course she can’t. Suddenly, her village doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

The “curse” is broken in being acknowledged and Yong-bin exercises her freedom to choose, consenting to a marriage, and making a decision to stay rather than being forced to leave. Yu’s comparatively hopeful ending in which Yong-bin nevertheless places herself back within a patriarchal value system stands in sharp contrast to that of the novel in which the Kim family’s failure to reconcile themselves to modernity provokes their downfall, but there is only so much hope in this hopeless world and Yong-bin, like her surviving sisters, will continue to suffer in an existence which offers little else to Korea’s oppressed women, remaining complicit in her own misery.   


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.

Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, Kim Ki-duk, 1961)

Five Marines posterKorean War films have a very particular tone and flavour often absent from those from elsewhere. As sad and despairing as they can be across the world, war films are generally the realm of macho heroism, men bravely holding back tears and charging forth with unrestrained rage in a quest to avenge their fallen comrades. Korean War films, however, like the majority of the nation’s cinematic output, are tinged with melodrama. These men wail, talk about their mothers, and worry for the future while forging intense bonds of homosocial brotherhood and becoming a battlefield family. The debut feature from Kim Ki-duk, Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, O in-ui haebyeong) is a prime example of this approach, eschewing combat scenes for behind the lines ensemble drama as ordinary men attempt to come to terms with the extraordinary situation of war.

Stock footage of the battlefield eventually gives way to a small squadron of marines digging trenches and at constant risk of ambush by Chinese forces. The main drama revolves around lieutenant Deok-su (Shin Young-kyun) who is the son of the company commander but there has long been bad feeling between the two men as Deok-su has always felt that his father favoured his brother, Deok-han (Choe Bong), and never really loved him. Meanwhile we’re introduced to another four marines – intellectual Jeong-guk (Choi Moo-ryong), Ju-han (Flyboy / Gwak Gyu-seok) – a father of five from Seoul, farm boy Yeong-seon (Park Nou-sik), and mother’s boy with anger issues Hun-gu (Hwang Hae). Following the death of two comrades, the squad of five is sent on a daring missing into enemy territory to blow up an arms depot through which they aim to make the sacrifice their friends have made in some way meaningful.

Made just eight years after the end of the Korean War and apparently commissioned by the Marine Corps in the wake of the May 16 military coup which initiated the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, Five Marines takes a very different approach to that seen in other contemporary war films such as Lee Man-hee’s The Marines Who Never Returned. Though in no way particularly jingoistic or warmongering, it would be difficult to describe Five Marines as an “anti-war” movie, not least because it avoids depicting scenes of combat until the final mission in which, as expected, some or all of the heroes will fall valiantly defending their fellow Koreans as well as their friends.

Jeong-guk, the college educated enlisted man, originally considers himself to be taking part in the pantomime of war, going along with the ridiculous sham of soldiering, but when a fellow soldier – a young boy who spends his time rewriting a poetic confession of love he doesn’t quite have the nerve to send to the girl he left behind, falls in front of him, Jeong-guk suddenly wants to join the fight for real. The idea of militaristic patriotism is then subtly reinforced if not quite sold with patriotic fervour. The necessity of the sacrifice is never questioned and the idea of doing one’s duty remains paramount even if it is also clear that the war has taken these men out of their familial environments leaving their women at home alone and, perhaps, defenceless.

Kim explores the peacetime lives of each of the men through flashback with the consequence that we get to know and care for them as people rather than as combatants. We rejoice with Jeong-guk when he hears he’s going to be a father, share Ju-han’s amused frustration when his wife includes all their bills in his mail, and worry with Hun-gu when his usual letters have not arrived. During their down time, the men discuss women but with more tenderness than expected – save for Yeong-seon’s rather lewd (and apparently fabricated) story of his wedding night for which he is rightly taken to task by his stern company Sergeant. Rather than focussing on the negatives of military service, Kim emphases the warmth and friendship among the men who forge deeper and stronger connections precisely because of the ever present threat of death.

When the final mission rolls around, Kim allows the action to take centre stage as the five man squad plots and executes a daring raid which does not quite go to plan and eventually erupts into a more conventional fire fight. Marrying the demands for macho battle scenes with the emotional quality of melodrama, Kim allows the men to sort out their emotional difficulties, shedding both blood and tears in equal measure. More emotional drama than action packed celebration of the glory of war, Five Marines may not quite be what the Marine Corps had in mind but perhaps serves their purpose anyway in reinforcing the positive ideas of camaraderie and patriotism whilst telling the stories of ordinary men and extraordinary heroism.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Also available to stream online for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.