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Since his debut feature, DIE BAD, Director Ryoo Seung-wan established a reputation for electrifying audiences with taut, action-packed fare.  Stateside, Ryoo made a splash with the dark crime thriller, THE UNJUST, won acclaim around the world with the exciting spy adventure, THE BERLIN FILE, and set box office records back home with VETERAN.  BATTLESHIP ISLAND marks Ryoo’s highly-anticipated return to the screen.

In the last days of World War II, the Japanese find their resources spread thin.  Off the Nagasaki coast, lies a coal-rich island called Hashima.  As every able-bodied man of Nippon is expected to do their part battling the Allies, the question of who will mine the valuable mineral is answered by the Korean populace.  Having occupied Korea since 1910, the Imperial army decides to force Koreans into working against their own interests and providing hard labour for their oppressors.  Prisoners, volunteers, and not entirely volunteers, i.e. pressed or kidnapped persons are shipped out to the uninhabited rock from their Korean homeland. 

For the privilege of performing backbreaking work in incredibly dangerous, filthy conditions over long hours, the Korean labourers, including children, are paid a pittance that never seems to add up.  To win their freedom, they must pay back what they owe the Japanese for various “fees,” like transportation in the Hashima ferry’s overpacked steerage, board in grimy shanties, and food that wouldn’t be served to a dog.  Once there, no Korean can leave - at least not upright.  Speaking of which, Korean ladies do their part, too; with consent being of no matter, they are dragged into hovels for the comfort and relief of Japanese staff, again, including children.

BATTLESHIP ISLAND begins in a tense, Japanese-occupied Korea, where only the craftiest natives can get ahead.  Crafty, but not the most scrupulous or wise, bandleader Lee has used his charisma and knowledge of Japanese to stay afloat, but after charming one official’s wife too many,  Lee and his group flee Korea to what they think will be a new start in Japan.  When his official letter of introduction gets lost upon landing at Nagasaki, Lee, his young daughter, who is part of the act, and his whole band find themselves on the boat to Hashima.  Lee’s chutzpah manages to spare his group the suffering of working in the mines, as the band is used to entertain the Japanese officers living on the dreary, abandoned island.  Not so lucky are fellow internees, including Choi, the toughest gangster in old Seoul, who uses his fists to become a leader amongst the Korean workers, and the jaded Mal-nyeon, who’s had to make her way in the world any way she could.  The three are brought together when Park, a Korean freedom fighter, infiltrates the island with a plan for escape.

When I first spoke with Ryoo about BATTLESHIP ISLAND years ago, during his VETERAN promotions, his excitement and determination for the project was evident.  He fully anticipated that this film risked stoking anti-Japanese sentiment and didn’t care.  He was more interested in exposing the tragic history of the island and its indentured Korean workers.  To that end, it isn’t surprising that this film is not necessarily meant for a worldwide audience.  

Not enough to let the facts speak for themselves, Ryoo makes sure every evil Japanese stereotype is writ large and broadly throughout the movie: We have the Japanese looking at and treating the Koreans as subhuman; pitting them against each other for giggles, and forcing little boys to work and die in the dangerous mine.  There are the sexual violations of the Korean women by vile Japanese officers, and we have many creepy Japanese pedophiles, including the one who is so enamoured of Lee’s daughter that he wants to gift her to a child-beating friend as a present.

These hot buttons meant to gin up the recriminations against the Japanese that Koreans have held for over a century are surely going to be received well by Ryoo’s home audience.  It’s unabashed patriotic fanservice, and considering the tensions still alive and flaring between the two nations, it’s not implausible that Ryoo would feel strongly about making the film.

However, understanding the politics of the piece and that it’s not necessarily made for non-Korean eyes was neither here nor there in shaping my opinion of BATTLESHIP ISLAND; it’s the fact that it’s a mess and absolutely the worst movie Ryoo Seung-wan has made. 

Right from the start, when we meet Lee, there is a feeling of ennui for anyone’s who’s ever seen a character played by the popular actor, Hwang Jung-min:  As the bandleader, it’s the loosey-goosey, laid-back, take-everything-in-stride guy Hwang has made a career of playing.  Once it’s established that Lee’s found relative acceptance by the Japanese overlords, the parallels between this character and that of William Holden’s black-market-dealing, American POW in Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 are impossible to avoid.  

Ryoo’s casting also seems lazy, first with Hwang being a proven crowd-pleasing property, but it’s his casting of Korea’s current It Boy, Song Joong-ki, as the freedom fighter, Park, that beggars credibility.  Having enjoyed Song in 2012’s romantic trifle, A WEREWOLF BOY, I just didn’t buy him as a baby-faced super soldier.  Song simply looks way too youthful and so physically unimposing as to be utterly unconvincing.  He seemed overwhelmed and overmatched by the bombast around him, never quite seizing the screen in such a pivotal role.  Ryoo also spends an abundance of time on Kim Su-an as Lee’s skeptical little girl.  Ryoo allows the young actress to precociously overdo; making too many faces and being altogether unnatural as the smart cookie who often saves her father’s hash. 

Faring better, but badly underused were So Ji-sub as the brawny, brawling gang leader, Choi, and Lee Jung-hyun as the embittered comfort woman, Mal-nyeon.  Their connection seemed heartfelt and interesting, but Ryoo is so busy frenetically jumping around subplots and set pieces that he never settles on the couple long enough for the audience to appreciate their chemistry. (Though Ryoo was canny enough to add some female fanservice to the film in the form of a wet, greased up So in a brutal bathhouse wrestling match, wearing nothing but a tenaciously fastened loincloth. Korean Promises, indeed.)

That lack of character development doesn’t help the audience tolerate the painfully obvious and ham-fisted “emotional” scenes, such as the protagonists’ rallying the endangered workers to rise up against their oppressors.  The schmaltz is overpowering.  This is a film with zero ingenuity and not a surprise in sight.  Even the wit and humour normally present and buoyant in a Ryoo Seung-wan film is in thin supply at the beginning, relying mostly on Hwang Jung-min’s homespun charm, evaporating completely early on, to be replaced by what Ryoo misjudges as tension.

Those bombastic set pieces I mentioned, including some inevitable explosions in the mines, and what is meant to be a rousing surge to freedom later in the film, never get to the point of thrilling, perhaps because Ryoo has kept his characters from being anything but one-dimensional cut-outs, so it’s hard to care for their fates other than as a vague idea.  The film is so overly long and scattered, when those big scenes arrive, they just seem more tiring than riveting or cathartic.  That detachment is also due to the cinematography being purposely murky; washed in mud-coloured sepia tones, and choppy in its editing.

Ryoo has reached a level where he can do a good deed and follow his heart’s desire to make a film like BATTLESHIP ISLAND, which is practically a patriotic PSA.  Emotion, sentiment and a huge budget got the best of Ryoo for this film.  I hope he regains discipline and a sense of narrative for his next one.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug. 4th, 2017



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