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)

The Throne (사도, Lee Joon-Ik, 2015)

the throneWhich one is worse, the son who tries to kill his tyrannical father, or the tyrannical father who executes his own son and heir? A collection of sad stories all round, Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (사도, Sado) is a historically inspired tale of familial conflict played out on a national stage. Where another nation might have entered into a bloody civil war, this very private tragedy keeps its bloodshed within the palace walls but still does not lack for cruelty.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Throne takes inspiration from the 1762 incident in which the ageing King Yeongjo has the Crown Prince, his son later named Sado, executed in the most brutal of ways – confinement inside a heavy wooden rice chest placed inside the castle courtyard where he will be denied food and water until events take their natural course. In flashbacks we see that the king did love his son once but as the boy grew older and became something other than what his father desired of him, his love turned to disappointment and then to fear and disgust. The legends say that Sado was a madman – a murderer or deviant who needed to be eliminated, or just the victim of a conspiracy, but his anger with his father is easily understandable even if it hadn’t been for a seemingly crucial episode where he was forced to endure a feat of painful endurance which almost cost him his life and, perhaps, provoked something akin to madness.

Yeongjo is an austere man, devoted to scholarship. He began Sado’s kingly tutelage at just two years old but even if he was a bright little boy he eventually grew bored with his father’s educational regime of dull rote learning and constant tests preferring the relative freedom of outdoor life with swords and arrows and far less judgement. Sado likes to paint too, but this also falls under his father’s definition of pointless frivolity and so is just another thing which earns him nothing but disdain from the man who would make him king.

Things come to a head when Yeongjo suddenly declares he wants to retire as a ruler and abdicate in favour of his son who is anything but ready. Settling on a regency agreement sounds like the ideal compromise but turns out to be quite the reverse as Sado is merely a stooge for his father who only uses the situation to perpetually humiliate him in front of his courtiers. Sado himself has different ideas to his father about how things should be done in that his father’s emphasis on keeping peace at court had largely resulted in deferring to the more powerful lords at the expense of the poor which is one way to rule country, but perhaps also the most selfish.

When Sado has a son who seems to be everything his father isn’t, tension only rises as Yeongjo first rejects the boy as an infant only to later seek deposing his son in favour of his grandson. Simply put, Sado is now surplus to requirements and despised by his father who also happens to be the king so things are not looking good for him even if he hadn’t descended into a kind of madness which, like Hamlet, briefly cleared and allowed him to stay his hand rather than kill a king where compassion proved his weakness.

Added to the historical intrigue and the tragic misunderstandings between fathers and sons, The Throne adds in a comment on the vagaries of rigid social systems which set out correct and incorrect ways of living, even down to the the ties on the hem of a pair of trousers. Sado wasn’t cut out for his father’s life of dry book learning and calculated appeasement. He was an artist and an athlete – a man of action who might have made a fine king at any other time but could never have been what his father wanted him to be (which was essentially just another version of himself). Yet no deviation can be permitted in this extremely regimented kingly court where a single misspoken word or misplaced action can be enough to seal your fate.

When prompted for a kind of explanation at the end of the film, Sado repeats one of the teachings from his father’s books – that in the end laws and decorum are less important than the men that stand in front of them. He placed the man before the idea but was not rewarded with the same degree of feeling – only a cold and dispassionate application of the law. In part an exploration of a historical event which is both personal and national tragedy, Sado is the time old story of a father and son who are unable to understand each other, snatching only a few brief moments of connection before the inevitable separation. A partial posthumous pardon only serves to deepen the tragedy of a son driven mad by his father’s unpredictable cruelty and even if the film ends on a note of melancholy reconciliation with the past, the central message of fathers attempting to force their own world on their unwilling sons is one that rewrites itself with each passing generation.


Reviewed at a “teaser” screening for the London Korean Film Festival.

Ode to My Father (국제시장, JK Yoon, 2014)

ode_to_my_father_stillReview of JK Yoon’s Ode to My Father (국제시장, Gukjeshijang) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.

Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo – an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family though seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt which becomes another motif of the film.

Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work – first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam, Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away him and desperately hoping he’ll some day miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.

This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war. However, this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce, and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives’ names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.

Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal – a father’s love for his family, but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re sign posted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.

Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.