[Herald Review] Experiencing Japanese atrocities in ‘Battleship Island’

By Rumy Doo

Star-studded cast battles to escape slave labor island in large-scale film

  • Published : Jul 20, 2017 - 14:52
  • Updated : Jul 20, 2017 - 14:52
It is inevitable that Korean cinema frequently retell the story of the Japanese occupation, a defining scar in the country’s history, in various ways. “The Battleship Island” is the most recent of such films, recreating Japanese atrocities on a massive visual scale.

The film’s message is heavy and clear: it exposes the horrific torture of Koreans on Hashima Island from 1940 to 1945. Records show that around 500 to 800 Koreans were taken captive on the island and forced into slave labor, digging 1,000-meter deep coal mines. Many were children -- their small bodies more easily fit into the dark, narrow tunnels.

There is plenty of detailed description in the film. A huge set was built in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, recreating the island as accurately as possible. It’s jarring to see how sleekly the atrocities have been recreated. Dozens of dirt-covered, emaciated laborers chip away at the mines, with seawater and gas bursting through the walls every now and then. People die with alarming ease when rocks fall from the ceiling, or a cart wheels the wrong way.

The film was shot with IMAX screening in mind -- it will open in surround-screen 4DX in CGV Yongsan -- by cinematographer Lee Mo-gae as something to experience rather than merely watch. 

That leaves little room for storytelling, unfortunately, and the plot is hurried to fit in all the necessary elements. Yet it is bound to satisfy many as a decent commercial film, with solid performances by a star-studded cast and large-scale visuals.
Song Joong-ki stars in "The Battleship Island." (CJ Entertainment)

Hwang Jung-min, Kim Soo-ahn star in "The Battleship Island." (CJ Entertainment)

In the film, Hashima Island, dubbed “Battleship Island” because of its shape, is a hodgepodge of Koreans who have either been forced onto the island or lured there under false pretenses.

Hwang Jung-min plays Kang-ok, the leader of a musical band who has a genial way with people. His daughter is the feisty So-hee, played by Kim Soo-ahn, and the singer of his band. Though the father-daughter storyline is formulaic, it is a delight to watch these two talents perform as the heart of the film, singing, dancing and bickering affectionately amid harsh circumstances. The two set off on a boat to Japan after hearing of money-making opportunities there, only to end up on the island.

Others on the island include Chil-sung, played by So Ji-sub, a former gang member who was once the most feared man in the Jongno streets. Lee Jung-hyun plays Mal-nyeon, a woman who was sold to the Chinese, then to the Japanese by Korean pimps.

Song Joong-ki, who rose to pan-Asian fame for his portrayal of an Army captain in last year‘s hit military drama “Descendants of the Sun,” returns as Moo-young, an elite soldier of the Korean Liberation Army and an agent with the US’ Office of Strategic Services, who infiltrates the island to rescue a key Korean independence movement figure.

Lee Jung-hyun, So Ji-sub star in "The Battleship Island." (CJ Entertainment)

"The Battleship Island" (CJ Entertainment)

A photo of the island compelled director Ryoo Seung-wan to make the film.

“I was stimulated by what kind of stories would have taken place in that hellish place,” he said after a press screening in Seoul Wednesday. “The sense of obligation in exposing the history there came afterward, while I was making the film.

“But there were evil Koreans on the island as well as evil Japanese,” he added. “In the end, it comes down to the individual... I wanted to focus on how the strong become weak and how the weak can become strong in the course of war.”

“The Battleship Island” hits local theaters on July 26.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)