The Battleship Island (Cert 15)

1 Disc DVD (Distributor: Precision Pictures) Running Time: 127 minutes approx.

“Dirty Koreans. You should be thankful!”

A typically blinkered rant from a power crazed Japanese officer in this epic Korean box office hit that ruffled the sensitivities of many right-wing Japanese commentators in depicting another shameful, hitherto covered up example of Japanese war crimes during World War II.

Based on true events this heavily fictionalised story begins in occupied Korea in 1944, where Japanese armies would regularly round up Korean (and Chinese) civilians and ship them off to the remote island of Hashima. But this isn’t a cosy holiday destination – it is a labour camp designed for the mining of coal to aid the Japanese war effort.

The male workers are forced to exist and slave under atrocious conditions in the mines whilst the women become concubines for the Japanese soldiers and officers. Already having been brought to the island under false pretence and lies, the Koreans struggle to keep their hopes alive until the end of the war, but when it comes, it doesn’t signal their freedom, but their ultimate fate.

Films recounting stories from the war, especially lesser known ones, are always going to be subject to scrutiny by cynical observers as to the validity of their veracity – although by now we should all be aware that a pinch of salt is required in this situation – while for others, the nationalistic bent of the filmmaker is likely to prove a bigger bug bear, often to the detriment of enjoying or rating a film.

And whilst this is true for The Battleship Island, this isn’t limited to Korea – Hollywood is just as guilty, if not more so, of this as any nation – but lest we forget that films like this are made with domestic audiences in mind first and foremost, so naturally the narrative and sentiment would have a pronounced patriotic streak to it.

Given the Japanese record of war crimes is, quite notoriously, hardly spotless, I think we can give director Ryoo Seung-wan a pass on this front, especially for presenting such a compelling story around which this particular travesty is played out. It is a tale of hope, survival, intrigue, courage and national pride – ironically key ingredients of any nation’s military dogma, in this instance foisted upon the innocent.

Making up the central cadre of prime movers are jazz band leader Lee Kang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his young daughter So-hee (Kim Su-an), a precocious but talented singer and dancer; street fighter Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub) and feisty prostitute Oh Mal-nyeon (Lee Jung-hyun). Already at the island is Yoon Hak-Chul (Lee Kyoung-Young), a middle-aged man acting as the negotiator for the Koreans.

Kang-ok, So-hee and the rest of the band were expected to sail to Japan to stay safe but were sold up the river by a Korean based Japanese police officer in revenge for Kang-Ok messing about with the section chief’s wife. However because he can speak Japanese and has the gift of the gab, Kang-ok is able to avoid harsh treatment from the Japanese, assuming the role of the fixer.

Chil-sung becomes de facto group leader after soundly beating a turncoat Korean officer in a fight, but is marked as a troublemaker. Despite their ignominious first meeting, Chil-sung forms a bond with Mal-nyeon, a woman with a lifetime of abuse to her name and the scars to prove it. Adding further spice the busy plot is the arrival of Park Moo-Young (Song Joong-Ki), a Korean agent sent by the US to bring back Yoon, only to discover a startling secret about his standing with the Japanese.

So-hee’s role is the nominal totem for the suffering Koreans, treated like any other female by the Japanese – doing domestic chores and dressed up in kimono and make-up as “company” for the Japanese men. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, So-hee is moments away from something unpleasant when she earns a respite by convincing her captors she is singing on a record being played by performing a spirited routine whilst bawling her eyes out in fear.   

Nationalism and emotional manipulation aside, Ryoo is aware this is not enough to tell a complete story, so a number of impressive but set pieces are included, depicting the danger the mineworkers faced on a daily basis. Ryoo was adamant that this wouldn’t be a green screen production, so he had a scale replica set of the entire island built, making these perils in confined spaces more tangible in their horror.

Saving the best until last, the climactic escape attempt and ensuing battle is a spectacle of immense scale and again, mostly performed with practical effects and staging. It’s a wall-to-wall cavalcade of explosions, stunts, suspense and brutal violence, superbly shot and choreographed providing non-stop action and high emotional investment; none of your usual “hero gets shot 15 times but keeps going” tosh, this is relentless stuff.

Everyone in the cast shines in their roles thanks to the depth of their characters, with some of the supporting actors giving much more than is demanded of them. But it has to be said the standout is 11 year-old Kim Su-an (already a five year veteran, including Train To Busan) exceeding the standard “crying girl” trope with an incredibly real, dexterous performance, and emotional maturity in the more harrowing scenes.

The Japanese are sadly one-dimensional however – unrepentant, gleefully evil and solipsistic in their thinking – and all played by Korean actors – I doubt there were many willing Japanese actors queuing up – but they do speak Japanese for added authenticity. But this doesn’t take away anything from the sheer vulgarity and repellence of their actions which is the important message of this film.

Ryoo’s instinctive, homeland crowd pleasing with The Battleship Island is no surprise but as a revelatory war epic, it can appeal to western audiences, provided they put their political cynicism aside and allow themselves to be immersed in this moving experience.

A slick spectacle with thought-provoking substance.

 

Extras:

Korean 5.1 Surround Sound

Korean 2.0 Stereo

English Subtitles

 

Cast Greeting

The History Of Battleship Island

The Making Of Battleship Island

 

Rating – **** ½

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