Korean cinema has been in a reflective mood of late. The ongoing series of colonial era dramas have sometimes leaned towards uncomfortable and uncompromising nationalism but among the more recent, there has also been an attempt to ask more serious questions about collaboration and capitulation of ordinary people living under a brutal and often cruel regime. While Age of Shadows dramatised this particular problem through the conflicted figure of a former resistance fighter turned Japanese military police offer, The Battleship Island (군함도, Goonhamdo) goes further in its depiction of those who dedicated themselves entirely to the Japanese Empire and were willing to oppress their fellow Koreans to do so. That is not to ignore the hellish conditions which define the very idea of Hashima as an off shore labour camp where depravity rules, exploitation is hidden, and the camp commander is free to run his ship however he sees fit.
In early 1945 Korea is still under Japanese colonial rule and ordinary Koreans are liable for conscription into the Imperial Japanese army whether they like it or not. Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) and his daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn) are members of a popular jazz band but Gang-ok has a habit of getting himself into trouble and so they are tricked into getting on a boat to Japan hoping for a safer, more lucrative life. Where they end up is Hashima – otherwise known as “Battleship Island”. Gang-ok and Sohee are separated with Gang-ok stripped of his musical instruments and Sohee, who is only a child, carted off with the other women destined for the “comfort station”.
Ryoo wastes little time demonstrating the immense evil buried in places like Hashima. A deep seam coal mine in the middle of the sea, the island is a fortress prison from which escape is impossible. Early on, three small boys decide to flee after their friend is killed in a cave-in only for one to be shot and the other two drowned by the lazy soldiers of a Japanese patrol boat who couldn’t be bothered to fish them out of the water. The miners are beaten, starved, tortured and manipulated into submission knowing that capitulation is their best route to survival. Not only are these men the subjects of forced labour, they are also made liable for the “costs” involved in their own enslavement with the bill for their transportation, food, clothes, and tools deducted from their “wages” which are supposed to be paid into their bank accounts for access on release. Those killed whilst working are supposed to receive compensation for their families but as will later be revealed, systematic corruption means their families may not even know their loved ones are dead let alone that they are being denied the money rightfully owed to them.
Things get even worse for little Sohee who is forced into a kimono and smothered with makeup to “entertain” some of the Japanese officers on the island. She manages to buy herself some time when she realises the Korean record the camp commander puts on to “comfort” the “comfort women” is one she is actually singing on. This new discovery earns her and her father a slightly improved status in the camp though she may not be safe for long. Gang-ok has already reverted to his tried and tested methods for getting out of sticky situations, making himself a kind of camp fixer aided by his ability to speak Japanese.
The Korean prisoners are represented by a former resistance leader, Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young), who offers rousing speeches in public but privately is not quite all he seems. Gang-ok gets himself mixed up in a Resistance operation run by an OSS (Song Joong-ki) plant on site to rescue Yoon who eventually uncovers several inconvenient truths which make his mission something of a non-starter. Yoon’s empty rhetoric and self serving grandeur represent the worst of the spiritual crimes discovered on Hashima but there is equal ire for the turncoat Koreans who act as enforcers for the Japanese, issuing beatings and siding with their oppressors in the desperation to escape their oppression. Tragically believing themselves to have switched sides, the turncoats never realise that the Japanese hold them in even lower regard than those they have betrayed.
It is hard to avoid the obvious nationalistic overtones as the Japanese remain a one dimensional evil, smirking away as they run roughshod over human rights, prepare to barter little girls and send boys into dangerous potholes all in the name of industry. At one point Gang-ok cuts an Imperial Japanese flag in half to make the all important ramp which will help the captive Koreans escape the island before being summarily murdered to destroy evidence of Japanese war crimes which is a neat kind of visual symbolism, but also very on the nose. Once again, the message is that Koreans can do impossible things when they work together, as the impressively staged, horrifically bloody finale demonstrates, but as Ryoo also reminds us there no “heroes”, only ordinary people doing the best they can in trying times.
Currently on limited UK cinema release!
Original trailer (English subtitles)