The Battleship Island (군함도, Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2017)

battleship island posterKorean 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)

Eungyo (AKA A Muse, 은교, Jung Ji-woo, 2012)

eungyoStories of old men trying to recapture their lost youth through projecting their fantasies onto pretty young women are not exactly rare and the protagonist of Jung Ji-woo’s Eungyo ( AKA A Muse, 은교) is just as aware as most that his dreams of youthful romance border on the ridiculous. A tale of loss, nostalgia, and jealousy both professional and personal, Eungyo is a poetic exploration of the burdens and benefits of age which are often invisible to those who can only look forwards.

At 70, Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) is a respected professor and literary giant who lives a quiet and solitary life in an out of the way villa. His only companion is his apprentice-cum-assistant, Seo Ji-woo (Kim Moo-yul), who is currently experiencing a period of success as his genre crossing novel Heart is topping the best seller list. When the pair return home one day to find pretty teenager Eungyo (Kim Go-eun) asleep in their garden chair, it sparks off a three way relationship which sees her working as part-time housekeeper for Jeok-yo.

Eungyo is a lively young girl and brings a little light and laughter into the otherwise stuffy villa but when she runs away from home one stormy night and stays over, the situation changes. Catching sight of Eungyo emerging from Jeok-yo’s bed, Seo jumps to the obvious conclusion and is filled with moral outrage in thinking his aged boss is conducting an inappropriate relationship with a schoolgirl. Or, perhaps, Seo himself is attracted to the girl and is angry that Jeok-yo has once again “beaten” him and proved himself superior on the fields of both literature and romance. Eungyo’s presence deepens the divide between master and pupil, threatening to change both of their lives forever.

Jeok-yo is under no illusions and never contemplates the idea of real relationship with Eungyo. His life had been a quiet and solitary one, though there’s little indication exactly how he felt about that. What is clear is that Jeok-yo dislikes his ageing body and the loss of his youth. In his fantasy romance, Jeok-yo is young, running and playing like a naive teenager in love but as soon as he wakes up the spell is broken, he’s old again and the idyllic world he’d conjured for himself no longer exists.

Even if he dreams another world for himself, Jeok-yo is perfectly aware of how things are in this one. Ji-woo, by contrast, attempts to solve all his problems by deluding himself into believing his future is brighter than it really is. His professional relationship with Jeok-yo turns out to have an unexpected dimension and Ji-woo’s literary success is a hollow pillow for his self esteem. Insecure about his talent, especially in comparison to his mentor, Ji-woo sets about casting himself as morally superior through his objection to Eungyo’s new role in their lives but this too is a thinly veiled way of trying to eclipse his master. All Ji-woo has to offer is his youth but even this cannot heal his loneliness and lack of self worth.

Eungyo becomes a symbol of something else for both men but she is also a young woman with a number of problems of her own. Faced with an apparently difficult home environment, Eungyo is seeking a connection from these two men but her borderline status as an adolescent girl means that the water is always coloured with both men viewing her as a potential lover rather than a child in need of shelter. Coming to admire Jeok-yo for his poetic soul and literary talent and siding with him against Ji-woo, Eungyo later makes a self destructive decision which ends her relationship with both men.

There are no happy endings here, even if the idea of a “happy ending” is not quite as ironic as in Jung’s previous film centring on marital infidelity, Happy End. Nobody gets what they wanted or what the audience wanted for them and each end up unable to come back from the whirlwind of self destruction which they’ve each helped to generate. A nuanced character piece in which age competes with youth, loss competes with gain, success competes with personal fulfilment, and true feeling is sacrificed for a relief from loneliness, Eungyo is deceptively named not for the young woman at its centre but for the collection of hopes, dreams and aspects of self which each of the men have imbued her with, eclipsing the real woman with an imagined prize and losing her in the process.


International trailer (English subtitles)