TL;DR – A harrowing look at a moment in our past that we need to deal with if we want to avoid repeating our mistakes.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
This year after watching the simply amazing Okja (review) and Train to Busan, a film that redefines a genre and one I really need to write something on, I decided to try and get out and see more Korean cinema. Now, unfortunately, it can be a bit difficult to find here in Australia, but thankfully a cinema near me does get some of the new releases from Asia from time to time. So today I continued my exploration of Korean cinema with the fascinating The Battleship Island. So what is the film about? Well how far would you go to protect your daughter from the world around her, what would you do break a revolutionary leader out prison, how far would you go to exploit the people under you to make a quick buck? These are some of the questions The Battleship Island tries to answer.
To set the scene, it is in the closing months of WW2 with the Allies getting ever closer to the Japanese mainland. With the war being in a precarious position for the Japanese, now more than ever there was a great need for the resources of war, one of which was in high demand was coal. With the need so high Japan accelerated its program of acquiring Korean labour under false pretences to help make up for their resource short comings. This is where The Battleship Island opens on the streets of Seoul where Lee Kang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) is bribing the chief detective of the Seoul Police Force to get him, his daughter Lee So-hee (Kim Su-an), and his band performing licences and work permits tour Japan. However, once they arrive in Japan they soon find that they have been tricked, they along with kids grabbed from farms, and others promised work in other fields are loaded up into a barge and sent to Hashima Island or as it is colloquially known, due to its large sea walls that surround it, as Battleship Island. This begins a story about exploitation, greed, despair, joy, and death.
Now the thing is Hashima Island is a real place, indeed you have probably seen it on lists of abandoned locations, or as a location in TV/Movies like Skyfall. Indeed it is so iconic that it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, part of the ‘Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining’ for those playing at home. However, while it is stunning to look at and a fascinating oddity, it also holds a dark past of exploitation during WW2. Now The Battleship Island is not a true story in the sense that its narrative is fictional, however, what is doing is recreating the conditions reported by people that lived on the island at the time the film is set.
At the heart of what makes The Battleship Island work is the commitment of the actors to portray very difficult roles, and the effort that has gone into the production side of the film to recreate the world of WW2. Understandably, to do what the film needed to do there was no way they could film on the actual island, so everything had to be painstakingly recreated through the use of sets. Not only are these sets expansive and really well detailed, they clearly had to be well designed because most of the film it is raining or there are constant deluges simulating the waves crashing onto the walls. Even without the difficulties added in the final act, this must have been a very hard film to create. Indeed, the same could be said about the acting when you are constantly wet and covered in coal dust makeup with being on what must have been very hot sets. Indeed some of the scenes would have been particularly uncomfortable film given the subject material.
Now we are going to go a bit deeper into the story, so there will be some [SPOILERS] ahead, so be warned if you haven’t seen the film. While there are other subplots, at the heart of The Battleship Island is Lee Kang-ok’s story. The story of a father in a very desperate situation, so he deals with everyone even the devil itself if it meant keeping her safe. This is a good heart for the rest of the story because it gives context for the betrayal, the despair, the joy, and the hope. It also helps give context to the central issue that gives the situation impact and that is what we see on screen, these are all civilians, these are forced labourers, women and children, boys taken from their homes. This makes all the abuse in the final act even worse because, on the whole, they are unarmed civilians being massacred by armed forced wanting to cleanse the record of their very existence.
One of the things that really helped the film was the great performances from the cast. I liked the energy So Ji-sub brought to the role of Choi Chil-sung, he had a swagger that walked the fine line between being tough but not alienating. I was really moved by the power in Lee Jung-hyun performance as Oh Mal-nyeon a comfort women forced to service the Japanese soldiers. As I mentioned I really liked the bond between Kim Su-an and Hwang Jung-min who were the main drivers of the film, but it also mirrored other relationships in the film like Park Moo-young (Song Joong-ki) who has to learn the hard way who to trust during war. As well as the acting, I did also like the nods to other films within the genre, and the black/white/red moment was really quite profound. The action sequence were all really strong, with the fight in the bath house being the highlight for me, it was in many ways brutal and raw. As well as this, if you knew your history, you were constantly aware that there was a ticking clock counting down to something, which I think helped drive the momentum of the film.
Now it is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, though some of these points might just come from me not being as familiar with the Korean style of filmmaking. In the second act, the narrative jumps forward oddly in places, to the point that it feels almost like the film is lurching forward in places. As well as this, towards the end some of the protagonists turn almost comically bad, which was a shame, it would have been a more powerful narrative to show how normal the evil was. Tonally the movie also has a habit of jumping from almost farce to super bleak and back again very quickly, giving you almost emotional whiplash. Finally, the characters are quite standard so you can probably guess the outcome of everyone’s arc pretty soon on and you will be mostly right. None of these are major issues, but they are noticeable.
In the end, I was really moved by The Battleship Island, the sets, actors, music, and story all come together to tell a compelling tale of occupation and escape. It is also a good timely reminder that every country has parts of their past that they don’t like to acknowledge, it’s painful. However, we need to explore and acknowledge the mistakes from our past, or we will fail to learn from them. This is something that Japan needs to do in relation to a range of issues from the WW2 era, but they are not alone, I am Australian and trust me, we have no moral high ground here. So if you can, I would recommend checking out The Battleship Island.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Battleship Island
Directed by – Ryoo Seung-wan
Screenplay by – Ryoo Seung-wan
Music by –
Cinematography by – Lee Mo-gae
Edited by – Kim Jae-bum & Kim Sang-bum
Starring – Hwang Jung-min, So Ji-sub, Song Joong-ki, Lee Jung-hyun, Kim Su-an, Lee Geung-young, Lee Jung-eun, Yoon Kyung-ho, Bae Seung-cheol, Jang Sung-bum, Kim Ye-eun & Bae Je-gi
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: na