While Western audiences’ enthusiasm remained focused on Dunkirk for a second weekend, South Koreans last week were flocking to The Battleship Island, another expansive WWII epic, propelling it to the top of the domestic box office. With its overly complex plot and sometimes strident tone, Ryoo Seung-Wan’s follow-up to 2015’s Veteran, another high grosser, isn’t likely to stir quite as much excitement with its North American release, however.
Based on a liberally fictionalized version of historical events, this lavishly produced feature revisits Japanese wartime abuses of Korean civilians with a methodically deliberate approach. In an effort to personalize this particular incident of national trauma, the filmmakers introduce a charismatic father-and-daughter pair as stand-ins for a nation riven by familial separations.
As WWII begins to wane, tens of thousands of Koreans, effectively enslaved by Japan’s occupation, toil in a wide variety of industries, but by dint of a quick wit, flexible moral character and Japanese-translation skills, Lee (Hwang Jung-Min) has managed to avoid conscription. It helps that he’s the single father to adorable 8-year-old So-hee (Kim Su-An), but she’s observant enough to recognize that despite his occupation as a charismatic jazz bandleader, her father is little more than a two-bit conman masquerading as a musician.
Like everyone else with any viable connections to the Japanese colonial administration in Korea, Lee’s looking for a way up or a way out, so when the band gets offered a gig in Nagasaki, he jumps at the chance. It’s all an elaborate ruse, however, which Lee realizes too late when he and So-hee end up as prisoners at a coal-mining labor camp on Hashima Island, along with 400 other Koreans.
After his daughter gets dragged off with the women from the ship, Lee finds himself sent into the pits with little hope of regaining his freedom or dignity. Lee’s a quick study, however, and rapidly works his way into the good graces of his Japanese captors by trafficking in contraband and helpful gossip. When he stumbles upon a plot led by Park (Song Joong-Ki), an undercover Korean operative, to escape from the island, Lee uses his connections to guarantee safe passage for himself and So-hee, but only if he can deliver the keys to the telegraph office to signal a rescue ship.
The undersea coal mines at Hashima Island off the coast from Nagasaki, known as “Battleship Island” for its resemblance to a Japanese warship, played a key role in the nation’s war effort, staffed by forced labor. And while the conditions may have been extreme, there was never an occasion for a mass escape as depicted in the film’s stunning conclusion, a sequence of bravura set pieces that each alone would be sufficient to wrap up almost any other action movie.
Ryoo and co-writer Shin Kyoung-Ill build up to this spectacular climax by inserting Hwang’s character into nearly all of the narrative’s key developments, as Lee rises from anonymous coal miner to become an essential intermediary between the captive Koreans and the Japanese mine operators. The character of Park, a Korean Liberation Army resistance fighter trained by America’s OSS, is no less fictitious, carefully calculated to stir nationalist sentiment. And the ongoing controversy over Korean women forced into WWII sexual slavery finds its representative in Mallyon (Lee Jung-Hyun), a defiant “comfort woman.”
The Battleship Island allows Ryoo to tick a WWII epic off his bucket list (after crime drama Veteran and spy thriller The Berlin File), but the convoluted plot feels like such an outright manipulation that it diminishes the impact of the concluding escape sequence. Staged on a specially constructed a 2/3-scale set of the island, it’s an impressive display of visual technique and simulated combat as the Koreans rebel against their Japanese oppressors in an attempt to escape aboard a massive coal freighter.
Throughout the plot twists, shootouts and patriotic speeches, Hwang plays his Lee character as a resourceful Everyman who just wants to survive long enough to rescue his daughter from the clutches of her Japanese captors. In between all of the tough-guy posturing, Song’s rebel leader Park also forms a bond with the feisty young girl, but Kim bests them both with her portrayal of determined perseverance that ultimately represents an entire nation’s resilient endurance of deplorable injustice.
In a footnote to the film’s many technical distinctions, The Battleship Island will open at two Los Angeles theaters supporting the ScreenX format, a multi-projection system featuring a nearly 360-degree theater experience.
Production company: Filmmakers R&K
Distributor: CJ Entertainment
Cast: Hwang Jung-Min, Song Joong-Ki, So Ji-Sub, Lee Jung-Hyun, Lee Kyoung-Young, Kim Su-An
Director: Ryoo Seung-Wan
Screenwriters: Ryoo Seung-Wan, Shin Kyoung-Ill
Producer: Kang Hye-Jung
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-Sung
Director of photography: Lee Mogae
Production designer: Lee Hwo-Kyung
Costume designers: Cho Sang-Kyung, Oh Jung-Geun
Editors: Kim Sang-Bum, Kim Jae-Bum
Music: Bang Jun-Suk