Film review: The Battleship Island

Battleship poster

Synopsis

Some nasty Japanese are being beastly to the Korean forced labourers in an offshore Japanese coal mine as the Second World War comes to a close. And one or two Koreans aren’t exactly being that patriotic either. In the middle of it all is a weak, venal Korean who is among the labourers with his travelling jazz band and his 10 year old daughter. The Koreans plan their escape when it looks like their days are numbered. There’s a big battle with the Japanese warders. Whether they managed to escape or not I don’t know, because I couldn’t be bothered to stick around to find out. Thus Battleship Island joins the rogues’ gallery of Korean films that I have walked out of – along with other offerings such as Himalaya, A Better Tomorrow and A Blood Pledge.

Brief discussion (it really doesn’t deserve much more)

What was so tedious about Battleship Island? Well, there was really nothing to engage you. Any bit of story-telling was rushed: for example the brief scene in China which explained the presence on Battleship Island of a spy whose mission was to extricate a Korean resistance leader who has the reputation of being able to reconcile the most querulous factions in the independence movement. And somehow, suddenly, the band leader becomes a lynchpin of the escape plan through an ability to make friends and get people to do him favours.

The island
The film’s reproduction of the offshore coal mine on Hashima Island

In casting Hwang Jung-min as the ordinary guy, the band leader at the centre of this story, Ryu Seung-wan is perhaps trying to emulate the box office success of Ode To My Father, the huge hit of 2015. At the start of that movie, Hwang makes a dramatic escape from the carnage and confusion of the Hungnam evacuation in North Korea in December 1950. But in that movie the struggling family was the star of the show. In Battleship Island, where the dramatic escape scene comes at the end, it is the set that is the star. The mine has its own deadly and mercurial life: constant gas leaks, water leaks and other tragedies almost generate more interest that the characters themselves. And full marks to the make-up artists too, for the brown, smeared bodies of the miners; and to the cameramen, sound and effects people who generated the visceral battle scenes at the end. But a week after seeing the movie my main memory of it is that it was dark brown with flecks of dirty red. That doesn’t say much about the impression it made on me.

Battleship stills
Stills from Battleship Island (from hancinema,net) showing the sombre colour palette.

Ryu Seung-wan (류승완) The Battleship Island (군함도, 2017) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

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