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)

Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)