By Chang Dong-woo
SEOUL, July 22 (Yonhap) — A lot is riding on the success of “The Battleship Island,” one of this year’s biggest homegrown summer tentpole movies. The project has attracted huge attention since first announced for its inspiration from the atrocities and ordeals faced by hundreds of forced Korean coal miners and sex slaves at Japan’s Hashima Island, nicknamed “Battleship Island” after its resemblance to a warship, during World War II.
Written and directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, the action drama movie is the latest in the series of TV shows and movies from South Korea that shed light on Japan’s problematic past, especially amid the controversial listing of the site as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2015. UNESCO recommended Tokyo implement measures to explain its full history, but no action has been taken yet.
Besides its inherent political-diplomatic cause, “The Battleship Island” is also a big bet for CJ E&M, being one of the more expensive South Korean films to-date. Against a budget of 25 billion won (US$22.3 million), the movie has to sell more than 7 million tickets to break even.
Ryoo, a critically and commercially well-respected filmmaker whose works include “The Unjust” (2010), “The Berlin File” (2013) and “Veteran” (2015), was handed several balls to juggle: craft an emotional-yet-persuasive prosecution of Japan’s past war crimes that the world can relate to, and also deliver a satisfactory summer popcorn blockbuster that ensures financial success. Similar to last year’s “Operation Chromite,” its a “too big to fail” type of movie for CJ and — depending on who you ask — for the country as well.
The film is based on and inspired by records of the island, but the story itself is from Ryoo and co-writer Shin Kyung-il’s imagination (there is no record of a massive evacuation like what happens in the film). With an ensemble cast, the plot, set near the end of the war in 1945, is carried out from the perspective of ordinary characters who come from different walks of society.
Hwang Jung-min plays Kang-ok, a talented musician who boards a ship to Hashima with his band mates and young daughter, So-hee, played by child actress Kim Soo-ahn. He believes he’s heading to mainland Japan with the dream of making it big in the music scene there.
So Ji-sub plays a former gangster named Chil-sung, and actress Lee Jung-hyun is cast as Mal-nyeon, a comfort woman who becomes the spiritual leader among the Korean women brought to the island. Song Joong-ki portrays Moo-young, a special forces agent with the Korean Liberation Army, who infiltrates the island to rescue a key independence movement figure.
The expose-style storytelling is heavy on depicting the harrowing working conditions on the island. Ryoo successfully visualizes the hell-like conditions to which Koreans were subjected. Workers are thrust into dark and cramped underground tunnels, arousing a feeling of claustrophobia to viewers. Laborers are forced to work with zero safety equipment and hence, as expected in such a film, hell breaks loose via an accidental gas explosion, leading to mass casualties.
Women are subject to working at brothels and bars. People at times do attempt to flee the island but those who successfully breach the security perimeter meet their doom on the high seas.
As dire as things are, the Koreans do form a community led by Yoon Hak-chul, played by Lee Kyung-young, who acts as their spiritual leader and mediator when interacting with the Japanese bigwigs. They are also portrayed as human, as in placing personal interest ahead of common sense, sometimes at the expense of kowtowing to their oppressors. Ryoo said he didn’t want to make a movie where the good-evil division was so obvious.
The Japanese oppressors, on the other hand, are your typical brutal and authoritative figures. As expected, they are ruthless and exploitative. And without exception, they all come off as one-dimensional, which seems a rather dull approach, especially in comparison to how the Koreans in the film are multi-faceted.
The production is highly detailed and intricate, with CJ having created a full-size set, albeit scaled two-thirds to the real-life Hashima Island, spanning 66,000 square meters in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. The structural layout of Hashima — which was basically a city divided into the subjugated Korean population and the privileged Japanese community — was reconstructed 1:1 to the actual site as much as possible including coal mines, a dock, a school building for young Japanese children and a red light district.
The cinematography is mostly dark and bland but it’s obviously by choice. Viewers never feel visually bored thanks to the range of environments on the set. But the movie could have done a better job in conveying a sense of scale of the island, as a lot of shots, besides the final battle sequence, were filmed in underground caves or in rooms with intentionally bleak lighting.
So how does the movie stack up? With a huge budget and an star-studded cast, it’s obvious that “The Battleship Island” is trying to do a lot of things at once. But the film ultimately ends up falling on its own sword, leaving viewers unimpressed by what could have been both an exciting and emotional summer blockbuster.
The problem that stands out the most is that it’s hard for viewers to emotionally invest in any of its major characters. Supposedly Kang-ok is the main figure that anchors the film throughout. But the character, for the most part, comes off as too light-hearted and comedic for the part. Song and So’s characters are also underwritten and so one-dimensional that they seem derivative, with their actions and behavior hardly bearing any meaning or weight.
It’s not just the character development but also the overall screenwriting and editing that could have been drastically improved. The movie has a major plot twist that leads to Song’s character deciding to abort his given mission and evacuate all Koreans. But it comes out of nowhere with zero foreshadowing and fails to emotionally register with viewers, leaving them almost indifferent to his cause.
Another big problem with “The Battleship Island” is that the movie lacks a sense of reality and practicality when it comes to action. This is seen eespecially during the final battle sequences, to the point of breaking the movie’s suspension of disbelief. Song’s character is unrealistically invincible even by Hollywood blockbuster standards. It is hard to discuss the details without getting into spoiler territory, but logistics-wise an operation of evacuating hundreds should feel much more difficult to pull off.
Given the subject matter, the film’s strong anti-Japanese message is clearly an unavoidable aspect. But it’s hard to shrug off the impression that the producers intentionally dialed up the anti-Japanese sentiment — there is a highly choreographed scene in which Kang-ok slashes a giant “Rising Sun” flag in half during the evacuation — for the purpose of supposed “patriotic marketing.”
“The Battleship Island” hits theaters July 26.