It is the final year of World War II, and the sweet-talking bandleader Gang-ok is busy as usual, holding concerts at charity events in Seoul with his talented young daughter Sohee, working around the Japanese colonial government’s ban on jazz, and hustling deals on the side. But a fling with the wife of a high ranking official lands him in a situation that even he can’t talk his way out of. After making arrangements with a friend in the police force, he boards a ship with his daughter and band members, intending to do a concert tour in Japan. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s been duped, and they’re all actually headed for an island off the coast of Nagasaki called Hashima, a.k.a. “Battleship Island”.
The tiny island, which does in fact resemble a battleship, is the site of an expansive coal mine where a large population of Korean forced laborers live under hellish conditions. After they arrive, Sohee is even dragged off to the “comfort station”, where women are made to perform sexual favors for the Japanese officers who oversee the island. Desperate, Gang-ok makes the best of his negotiating skills in order to shield his daughter and the band from danger. But there are bigger events taking shape on the island, involving the respected leader of the Korean community, the arrival of a notorious gangster from Seoul, and a secret plan hatched by an OSS-trained Korean independence activist.
The Battleship Island is one of the most ambitious Korean movies ever made. With a $21 million budget, it was shot over 115 shooting days on a massive set that took 6 months to construct, and which is about two-thirds the size of the actual island. The epic battle sequence that makes up the final section of the film took no less than a month and a half to shoot, and was described by director Ryoo Seung-wan as “the most intense thing I have ever experienced in my 20 years of filmmaking.”
Perhaps the work that best encapsulates Ryoo’s ambitions with this project is John Sturges’ 1963 classic The Great Escape, with its all-star cast, epic action sequences and grounding in real events from World War II. At the same time, The Battleship Island is a polemical work, seeking to shine a light on Japanese wartime atrocities in this location which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its decades-long role in supporting Japan’s industrialization. Ryoo is also straightforward in depicting how many Koreans were complicit in the oppression meted out by the Japanese.
Partly as a result of this unusual blend of spectacle, history and polemics, The Battleship Island set off an explosion of controversy upon its release in summer 2017. Viewers on the nationalist end of the spectrum vented online about the portrayal of collusion by Koreans, while others criticized the one-dimensional characterization of Japanese villainy. Korean audiences at any rate have had a complicated love-hate relationship with blockbusters over the years, and this film was no exception. Although it sold 6.6 million tickets, this was still seen as a disappointment considering its pre-release hype.
Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that this film offers up spectacle on an unprecedented scale. There is much to like in its performances as well, from Hwang Jung-min’s assured, everyman charm and the charisma of Song Joong-ki (a sensation in China thanks to the TV drama Descendants of the Sun) to Kim Su-an’s portrayal of Sohee – indeed, one of the biggest spectacles in this epic blockbuster is the acting of an 11-year old girl. In the end, The Battleship Island may not have the universal appeal of Ryoo’s previous film Veteran, but it occupies a distinctive place in Korean cinema history.
Ryoo Seung-wan (b. 1973) made his debut with the highly praised Die Bad (2000). Die Bad also introduced his younger brother Ryoo Seung-bum, who would develop into one of Korea’s outstanding acting talents. Over the next two decades, Ryoo directed 10 features and numerous shorts. He has also distinguished himself as a producer (Trouble Shooter) and actor (Oasis, The City of Violence). His more recent films The Berlin File and The Battleship Island have raised the bar in terms of blockbuster spectacle, and his 2015 release Veteran ranks as the 4th-best selling Korean film of all time with 13.4 million admissions.
2000 – Die Bad
2002 – No Blood, No Tears
2004 – Arahan
2005 – Crying Fist
2006 – The City of Violence
2008 – Dachimawa Lee
2010 – The Unjust
2013 – The Berlin File
2015 – Veteran
2017 – The Battleship Island