The Battleship Island 군함도 (2017) Review

The Battleship Island 군함도 (2017) Review

Starring  Hwang Jung-min, So Ji-sub, Song Joong-ki, and Lee Jung-hyun

How many teaspoons of “Propaganda” do you like in your coffee or I mean movie?
One or two spoons can be considered “subtext”. Four or five could be seen as a bit much. Too sweet for some. When you reach eight or so, it is just bitter sugar water. Even if you use the best coffee beans, your cup of Joe is ruined. Korean movie goers tend to take their movies sweet as can be seen from the fact that most of the top grossing blockbusters can be considered “Propaganda” or at least heavily political themed movies. They go for far more than subtext.

So, what kind of “Propaganda” are these movies selling? Like most places around the world, Korean entertainment industry is dominated by our Korean version of leftwing politics. Usually, this ends up being summarized on a practical level as anti-capitalism which is obvious, anti-US, anti-Japan, Pro-North Korea, and Pro-China. Over the last decade or so, the anti-US aspect had been toned down because fellow left wing comrades have been in power in the US. So, the Korean left wing movement and thus the entertainment industry has been focusing on anti-Japan attacks which are low hanging fruit because of the history between our countries. And it totally works. It sells in Korea! However, not all the time even for Koreans.

Separate from one’s politics, having too much “Propaganda” in one’s movies can become distasteful even if you agree with that propaganda. In addition, the movie can get easily distracted from telling an amusing story. And “The Battleship Island” (2017) starring Hwang Jung-min, So Ji-sub, Song Joong-ki, and Lee Jung-hyun falls into that category. Even  having Hwang Jung-Min does not save it. I mean, actor Hwang Jung-Min reliably elevates any movie he is in by an inch or so. Is not enough here! Being distracted by the needs of ideology, the movie loses focus on what could have been a totally fine well-made non-accurate historical “propaganda” movie with decent performances and production values.

The Plot
The plot of “The Battleship Island” (2017) is set on Hashima Island, which is a small Japanese island with a rich coal mine underneath it, during the last months of the Pacific war, circa 1945. It is an ensemble movie in which we follow 3 sets of subplots focusing on 2 different Korean characters a piece as they try to survive on this island and underneath it in the mines. First, you have the “Father and daughter” plot which is about this Father and very young daughter gypsy musician swindler due. You know the lovable and funny rouges and thieves characters. Kim Soo-Ahn plays the daughter of Hwang Jung-Min. This easily the best part of the movie. Second, you have the “gangster and prostitute” plot which is how it sounds. So Ji-Sub plays the gangster and actress Lee Jung-Hyun plays the prostitute. Finally, you have the “spy” plot. This is where actor Song Joong-Ki is the center of the story. And this subplot is the worst for having him. Okay, there are many things wrong with this plot but actor Song Joong-Ki is one of the main issues.

Starting hard…too hard out of the gate.
What comes to mind with this description of the plot? Do you think of “Gangs of New York” (2002), “Empire of the Sun” (1987) or … “Schindler's List” (1993)? Things started to get dark? But this cannot be helped as this is about Koreans in a very difficult Japanese labor camp. Well… technically it is not because one does get paid albeit meagerly in this labor camp but images of Auschwitz is not hard to come by. And “The Battleship Island” (2017) wants to push this association hard even though only about 100 Korean died out of more than 1300 Korean from the work conditions in the mines. Less than 10$ fatality rates. That would be a great statistic for those people of God in Germany during this time.

As the movie starts, the audience is introduced to this world circa 1945 via the viewpoint of the father and daughter. At this point, one would expect to something like in the veins of “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “Empire of the Sun” (1987) which are human dramas exploring how people lived during this historical time frame. However, the movie doesn’t go in that direction. It uses this section as an explanation on how the characters of each story end up at the island. And it does a poor job at that since, if you don’t know the history of this event, it would be confusing why the characters end up on the island. It was for me and I knew the gist of the situation. Then….

Then, the movie turns into “Schindler's List” (1993)…entering the gates of Auschwitz. And the movie drives this narrative hard and with over the top with cartoon Japanese villains. This makes the same section of “Schindler's List” (1993) feel underplayed in comparison. So, propaganda! This island is not Auschwitz. In any case, during the first act of the movie, we are introduced to all the characters through the chaos and over the top brutality and tragedy. However, most of this is shown through the eyes of father and daughter. If I were to choose a core story for this movie, it would be theirs. It is the best in the movie since their plot is basically lifted from the Roberto Benigni’s holocaust movie “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) and the actors are great together just like in “Life Is Beautiful” (1997).

Time for James Bond
The first act of the movie is all about presenting the horrible predicament of the Koreans on the island. It was even worse than it was for the Jews! Well, that is what the movie is going for. Over the top Self-victimhood. But we can accept that as a stylistic choice. Then, the second act of the movie instantly contradicts this narrative as life on the island seems to have settled down. The Koreans work in the mines. They eat albeit horrible food. They gamble. They buy prostitutes and have dirty dirty sex. So, basically life in the 3rd world country but not a Holocaust. You experience somewhat of a whiplash from this.

As things settle down in the movie, we have the “spy” plot dominating the screen for this second act. And it is cliché, very unhistorical, and just boring. It is all about trying to falsely promote the military contributions of the left dominated Korean government in exile which were non-existing, It also tries to gear up anti-collaborator hatred. If you know Korean politics, the key attack on the right by the left is that they are Japanese Collaborators who are now US- collaborators. A very inaccurate narrative that has been fostered for 60 years or so. However, leaving the propaganda aside, the story is just boring and dull. Actor Song Joong-ki doesn’t help the situation by being as stiff as a CGI recreated young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyone know the Sci-Fi movie “Soldier” (1998) starring Kurt Russell. Song Joong-ki’s character is a stiff military soldier in the vein of Kurt Russell’s character. And Song Joong-ki’ is no Kurt Russell.

The punk and tramp
“The Battleship Island” (2017) is not a Korean romance drama and thus Song Joong-ki really have no place in this movie. The little bit of romance that exists in the movie is centered around the “gangster and prostitute” plot. This plot is sadly underdeveloped because the “spy” plot takes most of the time in the second act. And the remaining bits of screen time is filled with “Father and daughter” plot which is less hindered by the “spy” plot as a lot of progress was made on it already during the first act. The “gangster and prostitute” plot were only able to get a character introduction. So, getting time during the second act of the movie was critical to the “gangster and prostitute” plot. However, it was never given the time it needed. As a result, the relationship between the gangster played by actor So Ji-sub and the prostitute played actress Lee Jung-hyun was never developed to the point it would be considered a romance. It never proceeds beyond the first stages of creating some personal bonds between the characters.

If not for the screen presence of the actors and the chemistry between them, no one would really care if you could just cut this plot out. Nothing would change. This is where the propaganda aspect of this movie comes into play. The real reason for this plot to exist is the “Korean comfort women” political issue. It has been a hot button issue between Korea and Japan exploited mostly by the left to foster anti-Japanese sentiment. This is why the prostitute character was created as a comfort women in the movie. Seems like being a mere prostitute is not enough. You have to be a political issue also. If the movie was about her and this issue, it would have been less problematic. In “The Battleship Island” (2017), she is barely a character. As result, the propaganda is too obvious.

The escape
The third act of “The Battleship Island” (2017) ends up being an over the top war action movie. There are machine gun, artillery fire, Molotov cocktails going all around the place with bodies dropping dead all over the place. It is all about Koreans are trying to battle their way off the island while, now the too crazy to be taken serious, Japanese and collaborator villains try to stop them as if their Egyptians chasing the people of Moses on the seafloor of the red sea. At this point, the fact that none of this happen does not really matter. The movie even has a nuclear blast go off in the background like in the ending of “True Lies” (1994). And the villains of that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie are not more believable than those in in this Korean movie.

Leaving aside another tonal change in the movie, the third act of this movie is decent for what one would expect from this type of movie. It is cliché with all of the expected stuff happening, it is well executed and you can see the money put one screen. This can be said about the whole movie. The lavish production value and the quality of the cast except for Song Joong-ki are the notable aspects of this movie. Everyone is pulling their weight except for Song Joong-ki and those that made the creative choices related to the story.

The overall results, the end product, is thus somewhat of a mixed bag. There are a lot to enjoy in this movie. And there are problems; serious problems that could be forgiven if not for one thing. The effort to deliver propaganda is too obvious and blinding that it does not make you forgive the movie’s flaws. 


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