This site focuses on Japanese cinema, but Japanese cinema is far from the only world cinema I watch. Sometimes I like to highlight other films when they have some crossover with Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese actors and directors. The South Korean WW2 drama The Battleship Island (2017), from director Ryoo Seung-wan, is just such a film. Set in 1945 on the island of Hashima (nicknamed ‘Gunkanjima‘ or ‘Battleship Island’ for its distinctive profile on the horizon), it follows a number of Korean conscripts pressed into forced labour in the island’s coal mines and ‘comfort stations’ by the Imperial Japanese authorities. As WW2 draws to a close and the authorities become increasingly desperate and brutal, the Korean workers hatch a plan to escape. Though the escape attempt is a work of fiction, the island itself, its coal mines, and the brutal conditions the workers lived under are all historical.
The film features several viewpoint characters with disparate reasons for being on Hashima. For most of the film, Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jun-min) feels like the protagonist. The vocalist and bandleader for a jazz band in occupied Korea – Japan annexed the country in 1910 – he’s friendly with the local Japanese authorities and uses his connections to get more lucrative work on the Japanese mainland. He and his band – including his young daughter – are all pressed into service as soon as they arrive in Japan, though, with his letter of recommendation ignored. They wind up headed to Hashima along with Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), a Korean gangster conscripted along with a small but ruthless crew, and Mal-nyeon (Lee Jung-hyun), a tattooed survivor pressed into the comfort station. Later in the film, they’re joined by a US-trained Korean Independence fighter, Park (Song Joon-ki), who infiltrates Hashima to try and free a key political figure hidden amongst the workers.
As a side note, I apologise if I’ve mangled any names here: I’m not confident in romanisation of Korean names, and there are significant differences in the way the (official) subtitles handled names and sites like IMDB and AsianWiki list the cast and characters. This is further complicated by the mix of Japanese and Korean language and names utilised in the film. Firstly, there are a number of Japanese characters among the authorities, and secondly, a number of Korean characters are addressed by both their Korean and Japanese names. This appears to follow an Imperial Japanese policy that Koreans should take Japanese names, though apparently not everyone did. The English language subtitles never explained this and only rarely included a characters’ Japanese name, but if you listen to the Japanese dialogue, you can hear them in use. The subtitled version I watched was also frustrating as it actually included a note at the start indicating that Korean (the dominant language in the film) would be subtitled in white but Japanese language sections would be subtitled in yellow, but this was actually very hit and miss in practice, sometimes with only the first line of Japanese dialogue highlighted in yellow and then the rest slipping into white, and so on. The tiny font size and borderless white text also made for some occasionally difficult to follow conversations, but that’s another matter.
Back to the film itself and not simply the presentation of it I watched, and it’s unsurprising that the film was controversial in Japan even before its release. There is a particularly telling moment around the halfway point when the mining company – in reality, Mitsubishi, though this isn’t mentioned in the film – orders its subordinates on Hashima to collapse the mines and bury the evidence of its war crimes in using forced labour. The company official notes that following the fall of Germany, German industrialists are being tried as war criminals, and having seen the writing on the wall about Japan losing the war fears the same fate. The irony here is that although a number of Imperial Japanese officials were tried, convicted, and hanged as war criminals, many alleged war criminals were eventually released from prison and even re-entered political life. This was in part spurred by US fears of communism in East Asia, with a right-wing, anti-communist Japan seen as a more desirable outcome than pursuing crimes committed during WW2. In the decades since, the Japanese government has remained staunchly right-wing, and especially in recent years has tried to walk back past apologies over comfort women, and stepped up historical revisionism in school textbooks.
Ryoo Seung-wan has said that The Battleship Island is “not a kind of movie intended to instigate anti-Japanese or nationalistic sentiment”. Whether or not that was his intention, the subject matter was always certain to rile up right of the Japanese political spectrum that have never really engaged with Imperial Japan’s actions in WW2. On the other hand, some of the Japanese characters (all played by ethnically Korean actors) are cartoonishly evil – especially Yamada, the second-in-command on the island. It’s a slightly difficult criticism to make as its essentially asking for monsters – ones based on historical actions, if not particular historical figures – who imprisoned men and boys in a dangerous mine and forced women and girls into systematic rape to be portrayed in a more nuanced manner. It’s also worth noting that the Imperial Japanese characters are not the only ones who come off poorly. The film also portrays several Korean collaborators in an extremely negative light, something that becomes even more relevant when reading about the country’s modern struggles around now-deposed former President Park Geun-hye’s family history and efforts by conservatives to whitewash past collaboration. On yet another hand, the film seems to completely gloss over the Chinese workers on the island, mentioning them only in passing and framing it more or less entirely as between the Korean workers and Japanese overseers.
It’s almost impossible to watch The Battleship Island without viewing it through these many lenses. Purely as a film, it leans a little too heavily on melodrama, and I think mostly works better when portraying the awful conditions of life on Hashima rather than the later (fictional) escape attempt that follows Allied bombing of the island (taking place in the waning days of WW2 and with the shadow of a massive bombing campaign and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USA also does not escape without implicit criticism). There are a couple of brilliant action sequences, including a fantastic fight sequence in a communal bath where So Ji-sub’s gangster tries to win the right to control the Korean workers from a collaborator in a grueling one-on-one throwdown. The performances are a little all over the place, though mostly good, but Kim Soo-ahn as Lee’s young daughter stands out as remarkably good in what could have been a difficult role to cast.
Flawed but fascinating, The Battleship Island is worth watching for its portrayal of a poorly-explored corner of history. The island of Hashima itself is an extraordinary location, appearing in or inspiring scenes in Battle Royale II, Skyfall, and others. Eventually abandoned a few decades after WW2 it was recently marked as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in a decision that was extremely controversial in South Korea. With the Japanese government reneging on a deal struck to memorialise Korean forced labour on the island, The Battleship Island is a visceral – if not necessarily completely historically accurate – example of the strength of feeling involved.
The Battleship Island / 군함도 [Goonhamdo]
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
South Korean Release Date: 26th July 2017
Version Watched: 132 min