Hashima Island is a small Japanese island, located a mere 15 kilometers off the coast of Nagasaki; it is full of concrete buildings and has a seawall that protects it from the waves. Its shape is the reason for the other name the island is known for: Gunkanjima (Gun-ham-do, 군함도 in Korean) – “Battleship Island”.
The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its contribution in the industrialization of Japan, and yet, there is a dark shadow in the history of the island that has yet to be officially acknowledged by Japan – before and during WWII, several hundred Korean workers were forced into labor in the coal mines of Hashima Island – not only that, the island’s population included comfort women. The story caught the eye of the Korean hit-maker director Ryoo Seung-wan; he took on the ambitious, massive project and co-wrote and directed a film that has caused a fair share of media noise both on Korean and Japanese sides.
The heavily fictionalized story of Ryoo’s The Battleship Island takes us into the time right before the end of WWII, with Korea still under the Japanese Colonial rule. Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) is a troublemaker musician, a leader of a music band, who often performs with his talented young daughter Sohee (Kim Su-an). After causing a bit of trouble in Korea, he attempts to travel to Japan, but he, his daughter and his band mistakenly found themselves on a ship that transports forced laborers to Hashima. The father and daughter are mercilessly separated – he is sent to work with the miners, while she is to join the comfort women, despite her young age.
It is soon clear that there the island has a set food chain even among the captive Koreans themselves. Lee Gang-ok arrives to the island simultaneously with a gangster Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), who immediately fist-fights his way to command the Koreans, while there is another power figure already present on the island – Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), an elder who seems to mediate all inter-Korean relations on the island. Not only that; he is so important to the Korean independence movement that they send an agent to retrieve him from the island – an expert fighter Park Mu-young (Song Joong-ki). Sohee also finds some solace and protection in the newly arrived comfort woman, Mallyon (Lee Jung-hyun). These characters interact as we witness the brutality of their existence on the island, and the evil that does not exist only at the level of Japanese-Korean interactions, but among the countrymen themselves.
There is no doubt that The Battleship Island was an ambitious production from the very start. The cast is stellar – from Hwang Jung-min to Song Joong-ki, to So Ji-sub, to Lee Jung-hyun and Lee Kyoung-young – and includes several familiar faces even in minor roles. From the first minute and to the last it is also obvious that the production had the financial means to back the ambition from technical aspect, and for the most part – with only a few CGI slips here and there – the production delivered.
The Director’s Cut of The Battleship Island does not veer much away from the central story, when compared to the released version; there is just much more violence, with an extended final battle scene towards the end, and imagery that mercilessly pushes at the limits of acceptable. It also provides extra scenes that help connect the pieces together better than they are connected in the released version. However, what stands out from the story and provides some relief to the viewer, remains the same and gives heart to both the released cut and the Director’s Cut: the father-daughter relationship.
As Hwang Jung-min’s character does his best to provide for his daughter even in the harshest of conditions, Hwang as an actor does his best to maintain the balance and bring comic relief, while still channeling the struggles his character faces. Kim Su-an, standing right at his side as his young daughter, once again proves that – despite her young age – she can deliver again and again. As for the rest of the star-studded cast… The other actors’ performances did not disappoint, even if certain characters could have been developed even further at the screenplay level.
With violence and emotions running high, especially towards the end, The Battleship Island tips the scale a bit too far, and the dramatic value goes into a slight overdose; but that does not change the fact that, despite being a hard-to-watch feature due to the heaviness of the story, it is an incredibly rich visual feast that delivers, making it one of the must-watch productions of 2017. Not only that; even though the story is highly fictionalized, it sheds a light on a piece of history that should and must be acknowledged.
Written by Sanja Struna
The Battleship Island photos © CJ Entertainment