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)

Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)