Movie review: 'Battleship Island' is the latest Korean hit you are waiting for

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 04 2017 04:36 PM

There is another Korean movie released in local cinemas this week, and it is their latest blockbuster. "The Battleship Island" had reportedly already overtaken the box-office take of the big 2015 hit "Train to Busan." 

One of the big reasons why this Korean war movie is being released locally is that popular Korean heartthrob Song Joong-ki, breakout star of the phenomenal K-drama "Descendant of the Sun" stars in it. My daughter made sure we go watch it.

The film is set during the homestretch of World War II. In February 1945, a group of Koreans from Gyeongsong were captured by Japanese forces. The men, including the gregarious band leader Lee Kang-ok and the street gangster Choi Chil-seong, were sent to work in the forced labor coal mine camp of Hashima (Battleship Island). The females, including Lee Kang-ok's precocious daughter So-hee and the jaded Mallyon, were herded to the comfort women station there. 

By July 1945, a skilled young Liberation Party soldier Park Moo-young was sent to infiltrate the island in order to rescue Mr. Yoon Hak-chul, a revered leader of the Korean independence movement, being held captive there. In the course of his mission, Park uncovered big anomalies perpetrated by the island's manager Shimazaki. This led to his decision to deviate majorly from his original plan and organize the grand escape of all the Koreans prisoners out of there.

Like "The Age of Shadows," this film also touches on another tragic episode of Japanese atrocities against Koreans during World War II. This film was very graphic in showing the dangerous conditions inside the cramped mine shafts, as well as the inhuman living conditions in the camp. The injuries sustained were all very graphically depicted, with gore and broken bones exposed. The Japanese were portrayed to be one-dimensional villains here, led by the slimy Shimazaki and his fanatical second-in-command Yamada. 

Song Joong-ki mainly played it purely heroic from beginning to end as Park Moo-young. You know his character is as noble as it can get, straight as an arrow. His looks and carriage distinguish him clearly from all the other Koreans despite the thick grime on their skin. His plans all work. His body is invincible. He can do no wrong. 

The other Korean characters were given more dimensions by the script. Lee Kang-ok, a father who would do anything to protect his daughter, is played by prolific actor Hwang Jung-min, whom I had seen before in "Ode to My Father." Lee's daughter So-hee, the song and dance attraction of his nightclub act, was played by Kim Su-an, the same child actress who played Gong-yoo's daughter in "Train to Busan." As before, she was given a lot of dramatic scenes with copious tears flowing to get the audience to cry along.

Choi Chil-seong, a gangster with a tough exterior but a heart of gold, was played by So Ji-sub, who had starred in K-dramas "Master Sun" and "Oh My Venus." Mallyon, a gutsy comfort woman with sharpshooter skills, is played by Lee Jung-hyun, a popular actress and K-pop singer. Yoon Hak-chul, a respected leader figure with some serious secrets, is played with cool dignity by Lee Kyoung-young, a veteran character actor. 

The highlight of the whole film was the fantastic, though totally fictional, escape of the Korean prisoners by climbing up and crossing via a long metal scaffold to land on a waiting ship to safety. From a logical point of view, the escape of more than 400 Koreans this precarious way looked like a total impossibility, especially at the rate they were doing it. All of this while an explosive gunbattle was going on under them! We need to suspend all disbelief throughout this scene to appreciate its suspense and symbolism.

The history lesson is interesting, though it was hard to tell fact from fiction. They did tie in the end to the dropping of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki to ground the story in fact. The film attempted to squeeze in a lot of subplots which made it seem too complicated. Also, the melodrama may have been a bit too much at the end as director Ryoo Seung-wan went all out to milk it. Nevertheless, it is always heartening to watch films from any country that expresses patriotic sentiments. 7/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."