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Battleship Island: Phenomenal, highly disputed war account in the summer of nationalism

The masterfully staged Battleship Island presents a moving and inspirational story--if viewers tolerate its convoluted plot and overuse of artistic license for nationalist agenda.

The last shot in Battleship Island, closing in on a character’s teary face, sums up her countrymen's collective endurance and suffering. But its preceding scene looks like a blatantly revisionist exposé of Japanese colonization—even if the movie intends it to be a relief to the characters. That’s the salient issue with this newest Korean blockbuster, which South Korea released—and the producers acknowledge their intention—to intervene in a political issue regarding its East Asian neighbor. Based on true historical events back when the Japanese Empire still colonized Korea, Battleship Island is directed by Seung-wan Ryoo (Berline File, Veteran), who positions his star-studded cast in tragic and inspiring situations to amplify national pride.

The movie follows 400 Korean draftees on Hashima Island, 15 kilometers off the shore of Nagasaki, in the waning days of World War II. The location, Hashima Island (or just Hashima), has the silhouette of a Japanese battleship, hence its name. Ryoo spends a considerable amount of time to depict the misery on this nearly-one-square-kilometer facility where Koreans and Chinese work under authoritarian rules. The violence starts when Japanese soldiers board a Korean ship to whack the men and snatch the women while other Japanese on the shore of Hashima cheer their hearts out. This deterrence is only the first sign of death for the Korean laborers.

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Many viewers will find the depiction of Japanese officers, as either totalitarian monsters or totalitarian traitors, highly insulting. They aren’t even the mollified soldiers-in-war types—only absolute evil. Inhumanity materializes in their discrimination between nationalities, sadistic disregard of the laborers’ welfare and well-being, protracted embezzlement, and betrayal of senior officers. This dramatized notion pervades every scene with its black-and-white justice to devise the rising anger of the oppressed, who withstand harsh conditions under the unstable tunnels. Down there, gas leak threatens to burn and bury them. In an effective cross-cut, Ryoo juxtaposes the joy of Japanese watching a music performance with the excruciating peril faced by the Koreans in a degraded section of undersea mines. That reminded me of War for the Planet of the Apes if the Matt Reeves’ movie were R-rated. In real life, the living conditions on Hashima in later years weren't as degenerate as Ryoo makes it out to be. There were a school, a theater, a hospital and sports facilities. But in Battleship Island, little boys and girls are both treated as adults: the males go to the mines and the females to comfort stations.

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Ryoo’s screenplay serves its audience with the tear-jerking trifecta of characters: familial love, romantic love, and solo heroism. Because the movie shifts its perspective between these three storylines, we can't pinpoint who is the lead character. Or maybe Ryoo is awkwardly balancing them.

For familial love, we have a father and daughter relationship similar to last year’s Train to Busan. They are respectively Kang-ok and So-hee, on board with the father's band to perform in Nagasaki when their ship is taken over. It’s engaging to watch this bandmaster bend over backwards and bribe his way through all kinds of people to gain favor from the Japanese, take care of his daughter and, later, support the mass escape. That includes gossiping and smuggling contraband through his quickly formed network. Actor Jung-min Hwang—comical, sweet-talking yet earnest—collaborates with Ryoo after his fanciful role in Veteran and sways us with his chops. This is the almost amoral man who thrives in any circumstance, but we take him seriously because he has his easily annoyed but bright daughter So-hee (Su-an Kim from Train to Busan) to anchor the heartfelt emotion. He manages every way possible to maintain her childhood by entertaining her and shielding her from adolescent hazards. Hwang and Kim’s chemistry is superb, especially when So-hee gets mad at his father for being too strict. The dancing-in-the-rain scene will make you simultaneously laugh and cry.

Ji-sub So plays the unabashed Chil-sung Choi with his stale devil-may-care attitude, next to Jung-hyun Lee’s plucky comfort woman Mal-nyeon. He is the haughty gangster from Seoul who holds on to his urban influence before chivalrously refusing to see his people being mistreated. She is a comfort woman who impresses the audience by standing up to his nonsense with the expected testicle-grabbing trick. This couple is a surplus, but for what we get, their relationship is subtle and considerately handled. Their time together shows controlled sincerity, thanks to the aloof closeness of So and Lee's performances.

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Given a showcase of leadership skills in the mine, Korea’s cordial sweetheart Joong-ki Song dons the military uniform as Moo-young Park, a US-trained Korean with determined allegiance and a well-prepared dagger. He isn't afraid to go extreme or shrug off trivialities (like his deal with Gang-ok). This character holds the most important plot point, but its first ponderous backbone kicks in half an hour too late. His secretive mission is to protect a leader of Korean Independence Movement—Hak-chul Yoon (Kyoung-young Lee). The audience, however, can foresee obvious obstacles as Moo-young and Hak-chul prepare to leave when the clock ticks at one hour of runtime. There's more to this VIP, and the following revelations add to teeming conflicts, including discontentment amongst the Koreans.

They all start out neglecting others and fight to save their own skin, though this shared mindset suggests instinctive self-preservation more than selfishness. With this, Battleship Island seems to be pointing to the reconciliation of compatriots against a common antagonist: the Japanese. Moving to the third act, it turns up as a movie about personal drives in the grand theater of war, nationalism, and disgusting ordeals.

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The majority of humor in this movie, like in Veteran, is overblown in the opening. So when Ryoo presents darker material—the cruelty of harsh working conditions—the tonal shift takes longer for us to settle ourself. Eventually, the Korean laborers plan an escape through the coal freighter, staged with opportunities to enhance both the nationalist sensation and technical ingenuity. Ryoo and production designer Hwo-kyung Lee take their liberation to dish out theatrics after theatrics, shoring up many heroic moments. The giant set piece is grimly imposing, and thanks to the vision of cinematographer Mo-gae Lee, it’s easy to track where on the battlefield our protagonists are standing.

Trailing the rise of movies about nationalism this summer (Dunkirk and In This Corner of The World), Battleship Island might be deemed a propaganda film to pressure Japan as the jingoist fingerprints are too visible. Nonetheless, if viewers can tolerate Ryoo’s overuse of his artistic license and the convoluted plot, this masterfully staged movie still presents a moving story of love, hope, and unity, on which Korean conscripted laborers survive poverty and drudgery.