The black and white opener of "The Battleship Island" focuses on a part of wartime economy rarely seen in film- the support staff. Specifically, the miners, who come up with the raw material that is later purposed into shiny toys for the military. The work is dangerous, especially under the stress of wartime quotas. But it's especially bad for the Korean characters of "The Battleship Island", who labor for the Japanese near the end of the doomed effort that was World War II in the Pacific.
Don't mistake "The Battleship Island" for mere torture porn about how the Japanese Empire was bad. I mean, it was bad, don't get me wrong. Director Ryoo Seung-wan reminds us that while the men worked in horrible conditions, the women had it even worse- they became comfort women. Rather paradoxically, they were comfort women for the male Korean miners in addition to the Japanese soldiers, because everyone's actions for the war effort were considered, legally at least, to be equal.
There's the irony that defines the film. The high ranked Japanese officers we see believe that Japan is the greatest civilization in the world, and that supporting the Japanese war effort this way enobles the spirit of lowborn Koreans. They beam with sincere reverence when official Japanese anthems play. Yet the actual people whose welfare the Japanese government is supposed to be improving are miserable. The Koreans are on the constant point of mutiny. When they're not fighting with each other anyway.
The leads in "The Battleship Island" are defined less by long-term goals as they are by their constant opposition to each other. Usually for petty reasons. Chil-seong (played by So Ji-sub) is a military man who's used to being obeyed. Moo-yeong (played by Song Joong-ki) is a freedom fighter who's used to being right. Mal-nyeon (played by Lee Jung-hyun) has been a comfort woman so long she's cynical about everything. Hak-cheol (played by Lee Kyung-young) sees it as his task to keep order in the camp.
It's Kang-ok (played by Hwang Jung-min) who unexpectedly proves to be the bridge between these disparate interests. As a skilled musician in Imperial Japanese standards, Kang-ok is a definite collaborator. I was expecting Kang-ok to learn that the Japanese consider all Koreans trash, but his role in the story is much more nuanced than that. Kang-ok wants his daughter So-hee (played by Kim Su-an) to live. While everyone else is constantly obsessing over immediate, more viscerally satisfying objectives, Kang-ok alone realizes that this singular desire to live is what should be the priority.
That much is easy to lose in the moment, because "The Battleship Island" is incredible spectacle. The adrenaline in every scene is palpable, of the variety that makes you want to cheer when the bad guy of the moment gets what's so badly coming to him. But then, contrast that sense of excitement with the bleak sense of horror that is the final shot- that powerful visual demonstration of what happens when both sides keep one-upping another with increasingly gruesome violence, forever. It makes me glad, at least, that Kang-ok was able to find another way.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Battleship Island""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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