The Battleship Island, the latest flick by South Korean maverick action auteur Ryoo Seung-wan, simply oozes. With frenetic energy and sex appeal. With blood, tears, sweat, grime and waste. A lot of human waste.
Ryoo who, you say?
He may not be a household name here, but any fan of South Korean cinema – worlds apart from the bubblegum K-pop and K-drama factory, for the most part, at least – would count his hits Veteran, The Berlin File and The Unjust as must-sees.
This sweeping World War II epic, while by no means an essential piece of Han cinema, is an intense visceral spectacle that should not be missed, especially by those who still have this misconception that Korean movies are only for the screaming young girls (and a growing battalion of boys) and aunties.
Not to say that the devoted Hallyu legion will be deprived – Korean drama heartthrobs So Ji Sub and Song Joong Ki have been recruited to bring the sexy to this otherwise harrowing war opera.
Continuing the republic’s current revived obsession with its painful Japanese Occupation history – from the spy thriller The Assassination in 2015 to suspense drama The Age of Shadows last year – The Battleship Island opens on Hashima Island, shaped like a battleship – hence the nickname – off the coast of Nagasaki.
Hundreds of Koreans are forced to work in the island’s coalmines that are powering the Japanese forces in the last legs of the war.
Amongst them is jazz bandmaster Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min), who tries to flee to Japan with his young daughter Sohee (Kim Su-an), after one too many indiscretions in Seoul. Lured by a show deal for his band, they instead find themselves trafficked by their agent to work in the mines.
When Sohee is sent to Hashima’s comfort station – Japanese frontline brothels where young Korean women were forced to become sex slaves during WW2 – Gang-ok starts hatching an escape plan.
He conspires with an undercover elite soldier of the Korean Liberation Army, Park Mu-young (Song), who has been sent to get a resistance leader off the island.
But as news filters down of the US launching atomic bombs set to incapacitate Japan, and possibly end the world war, the Japanese commander decides to blow up the mine, along with the Korean workers, to hide their atrocities. The clandestine prison break becomes a mass evacuation.
As it turns out, the escape is pure fiction but the war atrocities on Hashima were very real: up to 800 Koreans were reportedly forced into slave labour in the underground coalmines, especially children, as their small bodies were perfect for the dark, narrow tunnels.
Ryoo underscores the miners’ lack of worth as human collateral with sensational shots of violence and cruelty, as the sooted workers chip away in the dangerously volatile mines and while desperately trying to survive the filthy hellhole above.
To me, it is when Ryoo throws a glance on this human state of suffering and endurance that Battleship packs the biggest punch. Unfortunately, the film leaves no space for too much of this quiet contemplation as it drags you on a high-octane ride.
Our only respites from the Michael Bay-esque bashing are the tender exchanges between Gang-ok and his daughter Sohee.
Hwang channels Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful father, who did everything to protect his son from the horrors of war in a Nazi concentration camp, but it is Kim Su-an of the Train To Busan fame who steals the show with her stirring performance.
Song and So may be the intended eye candy, yet Kim – surely the next Jeon Do-yeon – is the one to watch.
The Battleship Island
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Cast: Hwang Jung Min, So Ji Sub, Song Joong Ki, Lee Jung Hyun, Kim Su An