The Battleship Island (2017) – Review

A brutal exorcism of wartime demons.

The Battleship Island (군함도) – 2017

  • Directed by: Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완)
  • Starring: Hwang Jung-min (황정민), So Ji-sub (소지섭), Song Joong-ki (송중기), Lee Jung-hyun (이정현), Kim Soo-ahn (김수안)
  • The film: Set during the final year of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army has forcefully enlisted the labor of many Korean nationals to assist in the war effort by working in the undersea coal mines on an island lying off the coast of Nagasaki. Among the newly enlisted include the popular entertainer Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his musicians, along with his young daughter So-hee (Kim Soo-ahn) who sings in their band. The hardships they face on the island are near unbearable, but the two manage to get by better than most utilizing their unique talents. When a secret plot by the KLA (Korean Liberation Army) to send Moo-young (Song Joong-ki) to extract a important leader of the independence movement from the island becomes complicated, the laborers weigh the costs of making a last ditch effort to escape from the island.

Review

Director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran was a huge hit among audiences in Korea and became the top grossing film of 2015. Now, returning with the star of Veteran (2015) and Korea’s busiest working lead actor, Hwang Jung-min, The Battleship Island is set to be another box office smash after a huge opening weekend. The film is based on real events that took place on the island of Hashima, a.k.a. Battleship Island (due to its resemblance of a battleship from the air) where the Japanese conscripted Korean civilians to work under incredibly harsh conditions in the undersea coal mines. The way they were forced to work and live is pretty much the definition of slavery, but it was done under the guise of an indefinite indentured servitude system which they were tricked into.

When Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter So-hee (Kim Soo-ahn) arrive on the island, they are immediately separated due to the division of labor among the sexes. After an inspection process, the men are sent to work in the mines and the women, including Gang-ok’s roughly 10-year-old daughter, are sent to work as “comfort women” to increase morale among the Japanese soldiers. They are ruthlessly treated like animals by the Japanese soldiers and there are many scenes that are meant to horrify the viewers, especially by suggesting they forced children to work as sex slaves. During their stay on the island, the characters are living in filth and constantly covered in mud and coal. They even bathe in what appears to be mud baths. So even with the film being as beautifully shot as it is, the whole movie almost seems to lie under a thick layer of dirt and grime, which invokes a level of claustrophobia appropriate to the relevant living conditions that places the viewer among the suffering characters.

The endlessly versatile Hwang Jung-min playing the father, Gang-ok, is the heart of the The Battleship Island. Gang-ok’s tough love approach to raising his daughter So-hee as a single father has fostered a unique bond between the two of them. They work together and look out for each other, which results in So-hee acting very mature for her age. The lengths Gang-ok will go to protect his daughter and see her safe are what get the plot elements of the film rolling. The soul of the film is in the character of So-hee, the innocent but resilient young girl who manages to stay headstrong in times of extreme despair. The actress who brings So-hee to life got the world’s attention after her tear-jerking performance in last year’s mega-hit Train to Busan, and she continues to impress and nearly steal the show in Battleship.

When the climax of Battleship is in full-swing, the carnage that ensues is quite intense. As the Korean people fight back against their oppressors, men and women make extreme sacrifices to free themselves of their Japanese captors who are portrayed as extremely one-dimensional and maniacally evil. The staging of this epic sequence, full of slow motion death-and-destruction, feels almost operatic in its portrayal of the heroism and rage on display by the Korean resistance. Requiring immense sacrifice and a unified effort to free themselves of their evil masters, the Koreans must channel their own warrior spirits in response. It is almost as if Battleship is the filmmaker’s attempt to collectively exorcise the nation of the demons still felt by the atrocities committed during Japan’s wartime past.

The extreme hardships faced by those forced to work under these conditions can still be felt today among the people in Korea, and often takes the form of fierce political debate and protests, largely aimed at the perceived lack of compensation and sincerity in Japan’s effort to recognize and apologize for their actions during their war effort. As a viewer knowing of the emotional and political sensitivities surrounding this subject, soon after the start of The Battleship Island, it becomes apparent that the film is meant to be an airing of grievances of sorts. With the combined star power of the cast and blockbuster-making marketing, the film desires to broadcast to the world the immense frustrations still felt among the Korean people regarding these events.

Due to the disturbing nature of the characters’ circumstances, it is hard to call The Battleship Island an enjoyable film as it becomes extremely dark and violent, especially in its third act. Most of the characters are not well developed enough to make the epic finale pay off emotionally either. The biggest pitfall Battleship faces is its very unfortunate decision to portray the Japanese soldiers like evil comic book villains as opposed to flawed and misguided human beings. This takes away from the more serious and honest claims the film makes. However, there is an emotionally relatable story at the film’s heart. Combined with the film’s top-notch visual and technical achievements, there is still a lot to admire here.

Trailer


 

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