Last night I went to the local premiere (and for free!) of the movie Battleship Island. I went in knowing the story, having skimmed a review or two, and with moderate hopes for it (because sometimes reviewers don’t see things the way I do). Without giving anything away, I will say that the reviewers pretty much have it right.
I wanted to like it, really I did. What’s not to like with a cast made up of So Jisub, Song Joong-ki, Hwang Jung-min? They all end up on Hashima Island, where the “evil Japanese” have conscripted them to work as forced laborers in harrowing conditions, mining coal to fuel (haha) the desperate war effort at the end of WWII.
Here’s a short snippet from the LA Times review:
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).
My biggest issues with the movie are these: this kind of movie is formulaic (and jingoistic) so when you are introduced to characters you can sit there and point them out, one-by-one, “dead, survivor, dead, dead…” (by the end of the movie), but an even bigger issue I had was that there was just about zero time for real character development – it was all painted in broad brush strokes – more caricatures than characters. And you could say that the biggest crime of all is that most of the time the handsome face of So Jisub (and he’s very handsome here) is either grimy with coal dust or grimy and bloody from fighting.
I wouldn’t say that it’s a waste of time, but it’s not exactly an uplifting or fun outing. If you’re into WWII movies or the Korean/Japanese conflicts, this will be your cup of tea; if you want to enjoy So Jisub and Song Joong-ki being heroic, you might be left wanting more.