‘The Bat­tle­ship Is­land’

Ryoo Se­ung-wan’s am­bi­tious tale of Korean re­volt is stir­ring, if a lit­tle lu­di­crous

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com

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 Se­ung­wan (“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 slow­mo­tion 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 record­break­ing per­for­mance at the Korean box of­fice, where it earned more than $27 mil­lion in its first week.

The trou­bling whiff of nadaugh­ter, tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment doesn’t en­tirely blunt the force and sweep of Ryoo’s mul­ti­pronged nar­ra­tive, even when the story gen­er­ally pro­ceeds in fits and starts. The chief pro­tag­o­nist is Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung­min), a debonair band­leader from Seoul who, af­ter a few fool­ish in­dis­cre­tions, winds up on a boat bound for Ja­pan’s Hashima Is­land, a.k.a. Bat­tle­ship Is­land, a con­crete-walled la­bor camp off the coast of Na­gasaki. De­spite his protests on be­half of him­self and his young So­hee (Kim Suan), 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 on­ce­suave 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 qua­si­com­edy 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.

CJ En­ter­tain­ment

CAR­NAGE and chaos are in abun­dance in the Ryoo Se­ung-wan World War II-era Korean es­cape thriller.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.