I managed to catch the latest Korean blockbuster “The Battleship Island” or “군함도” in Korean with 창준 dongsaeng just last week.
Before I start with some of thoughts and review, here is a trailer for you just in case you have not caught the film.
The movie is set during the later stages of the world war 2 when Korea was firmly under Japanese colonial rule. It depicts the atrocities occured on the site of Japan’s first major undersea coal exploitation, Hashima Island, where South Koreans were forced into slave labour by the Japanese.
To be honest, I was amazed by the cinematography of the show the moment the show started. The opening was so well shot that I was pleasantly surprised.
I can’t really explain how was it shot or why was I so impressed but I am going to try.
As the movie was directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, who is very well known for the innovative visual and daring aesthetic aspects of this work.
“I’m the kind of person who only pursues stories that I’m dying to tell, the stories that will drive me crazy if I don’t tell them.” – Ryoo Seung-Wan
It was evident that the choice of camera and shoot was very mobile and innovative, with the repetitive use of aerial, crane, tracking or combination shots.
While many critics felt that the film was a major disappointment, I find that this movie actually required this conservative and refined approach in its delivery of the story.
The environment of the story had plenty of realism with lots of scenes set in coal mines, dilapidated squatters, shipyards and even out in the sea.
To recreate Hashima Island’s coal mines, “The Battleship Island” was said to have a budget of 22 billion won (S$26.4 million) which allowed Ryoo and his team to focus on and portray creatively what he wanted – via the scenes and spectacle, characters and sounds and visual effects.
Check out this video if you are interested in knowing how the real Hashima Island look like.
The cast was made up of star studded figures like A-listers Song Joong Ki and So Ji Sub, together with other familiar faces like Hwang Jung-min and Lee Jung-hyun.
In my opinion, the chemistry between the cast members was pretty on point… and my only complaint was that So Ji Sub deserved more airtime compared to Song Joongki.
That poor (but very good looking) lad had barely any scenes with most of this scenes having him getting bashed up or in semi nude. This guy definitely deserves more as the 2nd leading man!
While there are many critics within the Korean population who felt the performance by individual actors were severely underwhelming, I believe that the cast made a conscious effort collectively to avoid exaggerated performance since the topic of Japanese occupation can be highly politically sensitive.
Here is a bonus clip of the interview with the very adorable cast.
Despite the good response in the box office of earning US$400,000 in first weekend since released on August 3 in the U.S, there are a substantial amount of backlash domestically.
When it comes to a war film like this, there are bound to be criticisms and controversies along with depiction of melodrama, jingoism and violence :
- Claims that depictions of Korean characters as overly villainous in comparison to the Japanese colonial masters;
- Claims that the story of comfort women and forced mobilisation by the Japanese army are portrayed too diplomatically;
- Claims of ‘history distortion’ and trivialising war atrocities
For me, the intent of shooting this movie was evidently altruistic and need not be affected by all these squabbles.
As a film-maker, I believe the crews’ ultimate intent was to tell a story well.
Ryoo once said, “I’m the kind of person who only pursues stories that I’m dying to tell, the stories that will drive me crazy if I don’t tell them.”
He became curious about how the Koreans lived on the island after seeing an aerial photo of the island, which inspired him to make a movie depicting the hardship of labourers who had to mine for coal 1,000m below sea level.
While the crew experienced many difficult moments during filming, they were reminded that their hardships were nothing compared to the real victims back them and the hardship they went through. (Watch the making of the movie here)
I believe that the film makers were fuelled by a sense of duty to raise public awareness of an atrocious but less publicized historical conversation.
In fact, whether is it a tale or not, we learnt that in a desperate time of war, some of the Korean compatriots were or could be used by the Japanese because of their power and money, and were placed in a position where they had to betray their people. This is a nationalistic reminder for all Koreans to never repeat such a very sad moment in history.
This is a case of a production crew being inspired by history and wants to inform and inspire others too. For me, that is clearly enough.
Because that is what film making is all about – telling intimate stories.