“The Battleship Island” reminds me of the Korean version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” The film liberally fictionalizes a real (and horrific) WWII event to rewrite history into a much more satisfying outcome. It’s a patriotic, elaborate film that feels as confusing as it does epic. This is an interesting bit of history (although most of it is dramatized or even imagined), but it doesn’t detract too much from the actual historical event. If it makes just one person pick up a world history book, it’s worth it.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1944, several hundred Koreans were misled into believing they were headed for good paying jobs but instead were forced into slave labor on Hashima island. The Koreans faced heinous abuse and torture under the Japanese rule, with the young (and old) men working in undersea coal and gas mines and the young women held captive as “comforting” prostitutes for the soldiers. This part of the story is true; it’s the convoluted fictionalized plot that becomes revisionist history (and a kick-ass action film).
In this movie, the Koreans plan a massive uprising and fight their way out to escape their captors. The action set pieces are spectacular and the bloody, violent escape is just as thrilling as any mainstream action film. Things get even more violent when the United States launches its atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki, and the Japanese decide to blow up the island to hide the truth about their treatment of the Korean slave laborers. All of this aftermath of the bomb never really happened, but it certainly makes for a rousing movie.
At times, the film seems to be at odds with itself — especially in terms of tone and performances. There are oddly misplaced musical cues and some acting that comes across as more slapstick than its intended gravitas, and half of the background actors are so absolutely terrible that they detract from every single scene they proceed to ruin. Thankfully there’s the uber talented Su-an Kim (giving another leading star performance, just like the one in last year’s phenomenal “Train to Busan“), Jung-min Hwang, and Ji-seob So to carry the material.
The heavy handed ending feels more hokey than profound too, but I get what director Seung-wan Ryoo is trying to do. He’s such a visually skilled artist that even when the movie’s plot gets totally convoluted, there are a wealth of jaw-dropping shots to keep audiences engaged. This one is definitely worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Korean cinema.