I was pretty excited leading up to the release of Battleship Island. Based on the trailer, it promised an inspiring and epic tale about how Koreans were able to escape slavery at a Japanese mining camp. I expected an epic but by its end, I was sufficiently underwhelmed.
Synopsis: The story revolves around 400 Koreans who are enslaved and forced into labor by the Japanese at Hashima, an island rich in gems and minerals. In an attempt to secure safe passage to Japan, musician Lee Kang Ok (Hwang Jung Min), his daughter Soo Hee (Kim Su An), his bandmates, streetfighter Choi Chil Sung (So Ji Sub), comfort woman Oh Mal Nyeon (Lee Jyung Hyun) and other passengers find themselves transported to Hashima Island (Battleship Island) and forced into labor and abused by Japanese soldiers. Meanwhile, Park Moo Yung (Song Joong Ki), one of the best soldiers of the Korean Independence Movement, is sent to the island to extract Korean Independence leader Yoon Hak Cheol (Lee Geung Young). After learning of an alarming conspiracy, Moo Yung decides to smuggle out the entire Korean population from the island to free them from slavery.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Battleship Island was, in essence, a laudable movie. It had a great premise and it was based on an actual historical event. It had a strong cast and a big budget at its disposal but with this came huge expectations from the viewing public. However, while there was an obvious effort to make this film into a marvelous testament to the triumph and bravery of the enslaved Koreans against oppression, the execution came off half-baked mainly because the film tried to make the movie an actor-driven film rather than a plot-based one.
The film’s fatal flaw was in putting all of the weight of the film on a central character which was Song Joong Ki’s Park Moo Yung. The problem was there was no basis to support the character’s capability in getting the people out, except for a scene where his credentials were outlined by his superiors prior to the mission. When he was already at the island, Moo Yung mainly relied on Kang Ok to do the dirty work. It was also Kang Ok who also got the people to rally behind Moo Yung’s plan of escape. Moo Yung showed great bravery and skills as a soldier but he didn’t have the charisma to get people to take action, and that was mainly a problem.
The character that did show promise of being a leader was So Ji Sub’s Chil Sung. However, his character was not given a proper backstory and context to explain why he was always trying to pick a fight. The film mainly relied on So Ji Sub’s acting skills to convey a character that audiences can relate to. He did so successfully but the film only gave him so much elbow room to really shine. He wasn’t even included in the escape plan and was only saved as an afterthought which really was a goof on the part of Moo Yung. He never made an effort to recruit a valuable character like Chil Sung to his side. That too, was not made clear.
The only character that I could totally get behind in this film was Kang Ok. He showed consistency from the beginning and had the clearest motivation of wanting to get out of the island. His scenes with his daughter and his bandmates were the testament to his influence on people. For someone who mainly played it safe, he stuck out his neck more than what was necessary to save his child, his friends and the rest of the slaves at the camp. Plus, he was the only person resourceful enough and smart enough to think quickly in a crisis when the purported leader of the rebellion was busy fighting.
All in all, the film’s fatal flaw was in failing to develop a relationship between the characters and the audience. It was such a waste of good talent because the actors delivered on what was required of them. However, the film was written and its entire approach limited the impact of the characters and the film as a whole. In my opinion, director Ryoo Seung Wan could have done better with over two hours of film time than what was actually delivered.