Film Review: The Battleship Island

Although its plot could have been trimmed and more clearly focused, this rousing wartime saga is truly epic, in every sense of the word.
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The title The Battleship Island refers to a forbidding World War II Japanese labor camp off the coast of Nagasaki. Among its hundreds of Korean prisoners toiling in the coal mines there are Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min), formerly a Seoul bandleader, and his little daughter, Sohee (Kim Su-an), who would perform with him. Also suffering brutal treatment are Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), a gangster who uses brawn to attain prison power, Park Mu-young (Song Joong-ki), a U.S.-trained spy on a mission to smuggle out Korean resistance leader Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), and Mal-nyeon (Lee Jung-hyun), who suffers untold horrors as a “comfort woman,” one of the many Korean women forced into sexual slavery as a reward to Japanese soldiers.

Director Ryoo Seung-wan takes these diffuse and disparate strands of character and plot and effectively weaves them into an absorbing, boisterously exciting and often cruelly violent spectacle of war. Despite its brutality, there is enough heart and soul in it to make it a real audience film, of a kind rarely done today—the kind that earns $27 million in its opening week in Korea alone. Ryoo’s handling of the roiling crowd scenes and breathtaking action—lots of terrifying mine explosions and runaway coal carts, as well as hand-to-hand combat—is extremely impressive, although his control over his sprawling, sometimes confusing plot is less assured. It all culminates in a jaw-dropping half-hour prison revolt which, although fictional, is the kind of triumph of the human spirit stuff that has fueled movies since Griffith, and the film’s depiction of the unthinkable cruelty of wartime Japanese, which is ever being whitewashed in that country, cannot be gainsaid.

Hwang makes his half-bumbling, half-resourceful character a fit underdog of a hero to root for, while sweaty hunks Choi and Park bring the sexy. Beautiful, feisty Lee is an honorable addition to the venerable tradition of strong, no-nonsense, unsinkable Korean women on film. Her account of being dragged into prostitution and the monstrousness she endured rivals Ingrid Bergman’s similarly devastating monologue in For Whom the Bell Tolls, while outdoing it for savagery. But the cast standout for me is Kim, who delivers one of the most engaging child performances I’ve ever seen, going from Shirley Temple bandstand antics to kimono’ed service as a “comfort girl,” always retaining an impish spunk that’s a welcome relief from the often unspeakable goings-on around her.

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