Director: Ryoo Seung-Wan
Cast: Hwang Jung-Min, So Ji-Sub, Song Joong-Ki, Lee Jung-Hyun, Kim Suan
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures, Clover Films
Opening Day: 17 August 2017
Synopsis: As World War II nears its end, the small island of Hashima (nicknamed "Battleship Island") off the coast of Nagasaki is the site of a massive coal mine where 400 Koreans lead bleak lives as conscripted laborers. Tensions run high between the Japanese soldiers who maintain order with shocking cruelty and violence, and the Koreans from all walks of life who were tricked or forced into coming there. Then, just as the island's dark secrets are revealed, the Koreans plot a dramatic escape.
Just about everything you’ve probably read about ‘The Battleship Island’ screams blockbuster – not only does its budget of US$22 million make it one of the more expensive Korean movies, the war epic was filmed for six months on a gargantuan outdoor set in the city of Chuncheon in Gangwon Province. The ambition is no doubt admirable, but Ryoo Seung-wan’s massive undertaking comes off a little less impressive than its credentials.
Chiefly, Ryoo, who co-wrote the fact-based story with Shin Kyoung-ill, fails to develop a compelling fictional narrative or characters around the facts. As far as the latter is concerned, hundreds of Koreans were indeed brought to the titular island (so nicknamed because its shape resembled that of a Japanese war vessel) during World War II, the males forced to work as labourers in the undersea coal mine while the females as ‘comfort women’ to the Japanese men in charge of the factory.
Everything else however is make-believe. There is no such person as jazz bandmaster Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) or his young daughter Sohee (Kim Su-an), who were duped into thinking that they were on their way to perform in Japan before landing up on the island. There is also no such person as gangster Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), who was as brash as he was empathetic in challenging the cruel, sycophantic Korean foreman oppressing his fellow countrymen. And last but not least, there is no such person as the US-trained independence fighter Park Mu-young (Song Joong-ki), who was sent by the Office of Strategic Services on a mission to retrieve the de facto community leader Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young) his bosses had identified as a possible unifying figure for the country by the time the war was done and fought.
But perhaps most significantly, there is no great escape, which forms the piece de resistance of Ryoo’s film. Oh yes, after detailing the humiliation that the Koreans had to endure, the horrific inhumane conditions they were subject to and the resilience they displayed in the process, Ryoo brings it home with a bombastic prison break sequence where the hundreds of Koreans on the island attempt to scale the high walls of the compound, get onto a coal transport ship below and make it back to Korea. Plenty of lives will be lost or sacrificed in the process, Korean and Japanese alike; plenty of bullets exchanged amidst the desperate last-ditch attempt; and plenty of blood shed as befitting the intensity of a war epic in typical ‘Saving Private Ryan’ style.
That grand finale is undoubtedly thrilling, putting to good use the scale of the outdoor set on which the movie was shot as well as some expert technical contributions by Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography and Jung Doo-hong’s action choreography. Ryoo’s flair in crafting audacious set pieces as evident in his previous blockbusters ‘Veteran’ and ‘The Berlin File’ is undiminished here; so too is his knack for buildup, beginning with a plan that Mu-young sets in motion to sneak Yoon off the island, to a bombshell discovery of Yoon’s complicity with the Japanese, to the decision by the Japanese to kill all Korean witnesses on the island in the face of the Allies’ impending victory, and last but not least the hastily improvised plan coordinated by Mu-young therefore to escape. The pacing is breathless, and the stunts and gunplay well-executed from start to finish, which just about makes up for the underwhelming plot and character work.
Despite granting himself the liberty of creating a set of characters suited for the movie, Ryoo fails to develop any of them fully. Gang-ok is depicted as a jester during the first half of the movie and is therefore responsible for most of the lighter moments, but his flaky attitude and self-serving ways don’t make him much of a role model for us to identify with. The father-daughter between him and Sohee is also underdeveloped. Chil-sung is cast as the stereotypically tough-on-the outside-but-gentle-on-the-inside gangster. Mu-young is even more thinly written, and besides being a quick-witted, agile and well-trained agent, all we know about him is covered in a few brief minutes of exposition just before he is dispatched. As much as the stellar leading cast try to inject gravitas into their roles, they are undeniably let down by their respective one-dimensional characters, so much so that how much we care for who lives or dies is pretty much determined how big a fan you are of the actor.
Even as it fails as a character-driven film, ‘Battleship Island’ barely succeeds on the terms of its plot, which ends up comprising of a series of disparate story threads that are neither sufficiently developed nor engaging in their own right – an explosion in one of the mines due to a freak accident portends a potential clash between the Korean prisoners and their Japanese masters after the former manage to escape, but ends up amounting to nothing; so too is a threat to send the adorable Sohee to Japan to be adopted by the owner of the coal factory; last but not least, a midway twist surrounding Yoon’s true allegiance that feels forced and distracting. Yet though the story advances in fits and starts, Ryoo’s skill as a visual filmmaker sustains a strong mise-en-scene that keeps you watching.
In spite of its mechanized plotting and thin characterization, there is still much to enjoy about this bombastic action-war spectacle. It is to Ryoo’s credit that his movie looks and plays every bit as blockbuster as it’s been touted to be – not just the showy battle set-pieces but also the sense and scope of the living and working settings that the Korean prisoners were subject to on a day-to-day basis. If it isn’t yet apparent to you, this isn’t the sort of movie that you should expect subtlety or nuance, so expect good-evil depictions of the Koreans vis-à-vis the Japanese and plenty of handwringing melodramatic moments. There is no denying it is cathartic though, and by the time a grime-covered Sohee looks straight into the camera with a look of confusion, pain and relief, you’ll find your heart stirred by the display of heroism, determination and tenacity onscreen, notwithstanding that it never actually happened.
(Every bit as blockbuster as it screams, 'Battleship Island' delivers fist-pumping, heart-stirring and flag-waving war spectacle in spades, in spite of a weak narrative and thin characterisation)
Review by Gabriel Chong