Hashima Island, or Battleship Island as it’s more commonly known because of its imposing shape, remains a source of pride for Japan. A UNESCO World Heritage Site which was given the status for its contribution to the country’s technological advancement during the Meiji Era, the Island represents a significant milestone for the country. What the island doesn’t have, though, is any mention of the location’s history of using Korean forced labour and comfort women. Although this was part of UNESCO’s conditions, upon giving the island its status, Japan has yet to comply.
Korean filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan has decided to address this unwillingness from the country to admit to its war crimes, with a bold and heartbreaking depiction on screen of the location’s dark past. Using A fictional narrative based on fact, The Battleship Island is a powerful war film which highlights the struggles faced by many Koreans during World War II. Focused on an array of fascinating characters like musician-turned-swindler Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min), gang leader Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), and independence fighter Park Moo-young (Song Joong-ki), the film points a magnifying glass at the mistreatment of Koreans during this period.
Full of incredible, sprawling sets that depict the lives of the 400 Koreans who were forced to work in the island’s labyrinth of coal mines, The Battleship Island is a poignant examination of the hardships these characters -and indeed their real-life counterparts- faced. Run by cruel Japanese overseers, and micro-managed by a group of equally unrelenting Koreans, the workers are forced to do all that they can to survive. Ryoo Seung-wan presents many characters in this war epic, but it is Lee Gang-ok and his daughter Soo-hee (Kim Soo-ahn) who grasp the most attention.
With a relationship that’s reminiscent of Life is Beautiful, Gang-ok does his best to keep Soo-hee safe from the horrors of the island whilst also using comedy to keep her joyful. In one particularly sweet moment, Soo-hee reunites with her father after she persuades the manager of the island to let him perform alongside her and his band. When they reunite, her worries are clearly written all over her face but Gang-ok puffs up his face to look like a monkey, immediately lifting the mood and making her smile. It’s a small but important moment, which proves that their bond is the strongest and most heartfelt to be depicted on screen.
Hwang Jung-min is charming as Soo-hee’s hustler father, masterfully maintaining the balance between humour and sadness in the role. He thrives in this emotionally taxing performance, and it is his character that can bring some light to an otherwise heartbreaking film. While he does well, Kim Soo-ahn excels as his young daughter. Only eleven years old at the time, and with many films including Train to Busan under her belt, Kim is clearly more than comfortable performing alongside a huge roster of well-established actors. She easily outshines them with her moving take on the character, as her natural ability to act proves that she’s a force to be reckoned with.
There’s a lot on offer in the director’s ambitious project, but what is the most impressive is the epic battle between the Koreans and Japanese at the film’s climax. Significantly extended in the Director’s Cut, the clash between the two groups is harrowing to witness for its brutal depiction of violence on all parts. Thanks to Ryoo’s understanding of scale and visuals it is also incredibly emotional, though. The Koreans are determined to escape the island and return home, and they will stop at nothing to help support one another to achieve this goal. It’s a breath-taking scene, which features striking imagery and touching performances from the entire cast, and also proves why Ryoo Seung-wan is one of the country’s top filmmakers.
Directors: Ryoo Seung-wan
Release: 22 April 2018 (Udine Far East Film Festival), Normal edition out now
From: CJ Entertainment, Signature Entertainment.
Format: Theatrical, DVD, and VOD
Age Rating: 15
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