Review: Sweeping, unfocused ‘Battleship Island’ concocts a WWII-era Korean escape thriller

Ji-seob So as Choi Chil-sung in the film "Battleship Island."
Ji-seob So as Choi Chil-sung in the film “Battleship Island.”
(CJ Entertainment)

Wartime horrors are rarely served up with as much cinematic gusto as they are in “The Battleship Island,” a sprawling, savagely violent epic set during the final days of World War II, on a remote Japanese military outpost where several thousand Koreans were held captive.

Directed with boisterous energy if also an enervating lack of focus by Ryoo Seung-wan (“The Berlin File,” “Veteran”), the movie is the latest of several period fictions about Koreans casting off the shackles of Japanese colonial rule, though it displays little of the wit and finesse that distinguished last year’s “The Handmaiden” and “The Age of Shadows,” two superior dramas of occupation-era resistance.

What Ryoo’s film does have in abundance are shootings, impalings, Molotov cocktail explosions and extended moments of slow-motion carnage — and that’s just the roughly half-hour uprising that brings this hugely ambitious spectacle to a close. It’s quite a technical display and an undeniably jaw-dropping sequence, not least for the fact that it appears to have been dreamed up entirely by the filmmakers, who have sought to transform a grim exposé of Japanese barbarism into a triumphant tale of Korean revolt and escape.

This brand of historical revisionism is nothing new in the movies, and despite the charges of inaccuracy that have been leveled at “The Battleship Island” in the Japanese press, it is not, in and of itself, sufficient cause for rejection. (Quentin Tarantino shouldn’t be the only filmmaker permitted to treat history as grist for a stirringly ludicrous revenge fantasy.) Certainly it has its satisfactions where a mass audience is concerned, judging by the film’s record-breaking performance at the Korean box office, where it earned more than $27 million in its first week of release.


The troubling whiff of nationalist sentiment doesn’t entirely blunt the force and sweep of Ryoo’s multi-pronged narrative, even when the story generally proceeds in fits and starts. The chief protagonist is Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min), a debonair bandleader from Seoul who, after a few foolish indiscretions, winds up on a boat bound for Japan’s Hashima Island, aka Battleship Island, a concrete-walled labor camp off the coast of Nagasaki. Despite his protests on behalf of himself and his young daughter, Sohee (Kim Su-an), Gang-ok is put to work in the island’s coal mines alongside hundreds of other Korean men, women and children being held captive.

It’s 1945 and the end of the war is in sight, though that’s scant consolation for the prisoners, a handful of whom are individuated here via broad brushstrokes and shrewd movie-star casting. The dreamy-eyed So Ji-sub plays Choi Chil-sung, a once-suave Seoul gangster who tries to fight his way into a position of power, while Lee Jung-hyun is the beautiful, much-abused Mal-nyeon, a character whose main purpose is to gloss over the uniquely horrific plight of Korean “comfort women.” Elsewhere on the island, Park Mu-young (Song Joong-ki) is a U.S.-trained spy sent to Hashima Island to smuggle out the respected Korean resistance leader Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young).

That particular plot thickens intriguingly enough, and before long the movie’s focus on the island’s horrendous conditions — the soot-and-grime budget was very well spent — gives way to a daring Korean mass exodus that scoops up all the other characters in its wake. What should be a thrilling moment of convergence, however, winds up feeling largely pro forma: It’s when the various threads converge that the mechanical nature of the plotting and the thinness of the characterizations are thrown into sharpest relief.

Amid all the clandestine scheming and inevitable mass killing that ensues, the film keeps cutting back to the hapless but resourceful Gang-ok, who, played as a figure of bumbling quasi-comedy by Hwang (the star of Ryoo’s high-octane 2015 cop thriller, “Veteran”), represents one of the picture’s more glaring tonal inconsistencies. Far better is Kim, the young breakout star of “Train to Busan,” whose stirringly committed performance becomes the story’s center of gravity. If we must have our historical (and ahistorical) fictions, she’s the one you want leading the charge.


‘The Battleship Island’

Not rated.

In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles.


Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Playing: CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles | Twitter: @JustinCChang