While inspired by one of many dark tragedies during World War II, South Korean film “The Battleship Island” ultimately chooses spectacle over history. That could not be much of a problem if it were equipped with engaging story and characters we can care about, but the movie is frequently hampered by its scattershot narrative and thin characterization, and that only makes its action-packed third act troubling as well as superficial.
First, let me give you a little history lesson. The main background of the movie is a Japanese island called Hashima, which means “battleship” in Japanese. Lying around 15 km (9 miles) from Nagasaki, this small sea island was recently chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being one of important sites of the Japanese Industrial revolution during the late 19th century, but the Japanese government has deliberately hidden the dark history of this island although it is supposed to recognize that. During the 1930-40s, many Korean and Chinese people were sent to the island and then forced to labor in the undersea coal mines of the island, and it is estimated that about 1,300 of them died due to their harsh, dangerous work environment.
After the prologue sequence involved with one desperate escape attempt at the island, the movie introduces us to a bandmaster named Kang-ok (Hwang Jeong-min) and his daughter So-hee (Kim Su-an). It is February 1945 and World War II is approaching to the end, but Korea is still dominated by Japan, and many Korean people are conscripted as workers or soldiers by the Japanese government. Kang-ok certainly wants to avoid getting conscripted, and that seems possible when he obtains a paper which will make him and his daughter as well as his band members safe while they stay in Japan.
However, the situation begins to go wrong as they arrive in Japan along with many other Koreans. Everyone is promptly taken to a freight train to Nagasaki, and they are subsequently sent to none other than Hashima Island. As soon as their ship arrives in the island, they are brutally handled by Japanese soldiers and Korean collaborators, and Kang-ok is helpless as watching his daughter taken along with several Korean women. After a medical examination, So-hee and these women are soon forced into prostitution, and there is a vile, disturbing scene where they have to accompany several Japanese guys during a drinking party.
Meanwhile, Kang-ok and other Korean men are sent to a shabby area where Korean laborers reside, and the movie looks deeper into the extreme condition of the undersea coal mines in the island. It is always hot and stuffy in those mine shafts, and laborers are constantly surrounded by many possibilities of hazards while also frequently mistreated by Japanese soldiers or Korean collaborators. Although they are told that they get paid as much as they work, their wage is always cut for various reasons, and we are not so surprised when it later turns out that they have been extorted a lot more than expected.
While Kang-ok tries to survive and protect his daughter as much as he can, someone sneaks into the island for a secret mission. He is a Korean OSS agent named Moo-yeong (Song Joong-ki), and his mission is extracting a certain important figure from the island. When Moo-yeong approaches to Kang-ok for some help from him, Kang-ok is initially reluctant, but he agrees to help Moo-yeong on the condition that he and his daughter also get out of the island along with that figure in question.
Now the movie probably reminds you of several classic World War II movies about prison escape, but the movie fails to muster enough tension for several glaring reasons. Most of characters in the film are too flat or broad to hold our interest, and Japanese characters and Korean collaborator characters are more or less than cartoon-like villains we are supposed to hate as much as we can. Besides its heavy-handed melodrama mixed with jingoism, the story of the movie is frequently trite and unfocused, and I must tell you that many of substantial supporting characters in the film are mostly indistinguishable from each other due to their uniformly grimy appearance.
The movie tries to overcome all these faults and other ones via its bombastic climactic action sequence, but, though that sequence is technically impressive to say the least, this further amplifies its inherent problems in terms of story and characters. I still did not care much about its cardboard characters, and I was also bothered by how its action spectacle overshadows an historical tragedy it supposedly intends to illuminate. At one of high points during the climactic action sequence, the movie even quotes Ennio Morricone’s score for “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” (1966), and I am not so sure about whether that is appropriate or not.
The main cast members are mostly wasted due to their bland characters. While Hwang Jeong-min, who previously collaborated with director Ryoo Seung-wan in “The Unjust” (2010) and “Veteran” (2015), does not have many things to do except filling his role as required, So Ji-sub and Song Joong-ki are stuck in their respective one-dimensional roles, and Lee Jung-hyun manages to leave some impression although she is as under-utilized as her co-performers. In case of Kim Su-an, who was effective in “Train to Busan” (2016), she handles well her several melodramatic moments, and I think we can expect more from this promising young performer.
“The Battleship Island” is a disappointing failure, but it is not entirely without good things. I enjoyed its impressive production design by Lee Hoo-kyung, and I also admired the top-notch work by cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, who did a splendid job of establishing the vividly gloomy atmosphere around characters on the screen. It is too bad that these and other good elements do not serve a better story somewhere inside this mediocre piece of work.