Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Battleship Island: War Crimes at the UNESCO Heritage Site

Hashima Island off Nagasaki was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite the fact slave labor was used and abused there. Of course, that totally fits with how the UN does business. It was a grim place for workers, but even worse for the enslaved comfort women. The war is nearly over, but the atrocities will get even worse in Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Battleship Island, which opens this Friday in New York.

Although small in total land surface, Hashima was an imposing concrete rock jutting out of the Pacific, featuring a punishing coal mine that bored deep into the Earth. Nobody would volunteer to “work” there, but plenty of Koreans, as well as some Chinese and Southeast Asian prisoners were either remanded there or press-ganged off the docks of Nagasaki. That is what happens to swing band-leader Lee Kang-ok, his musicians, and his young daughter So-hee. Fortunately, he largely manages to avoid the mines by performing for the Japanese. He also secures house-cleaning work for So-hee rather than comfort woman duties, but the way perverted senior Japanese officials look at her represents a constant danger.

The good news is the war is going badly for Japan and is likely to end soon. The bad news is the military and mining company officials will want to eliminate all evidence of war crimes, most definitely including the victims. Park Moo-young might be able to help. The OSS-trained Korean independence fighter originally infiltrated the island intending to rescue Yoon Hak-cheol, a well-respected resistance leader, but that mission was complicated by unforeseen developments.

At one hundred-thirty-two minutes, Battleship does not scrimp on suffering and misery. It makes it painfully clear what slave labor entailed during the militarist Showa era. It is not pretty. However, Ryoo also stages a spectacular, island-shaking, massive-in-scale escape-revolt that stands up to any of the celebrated scenes in Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, or Heaven help us, Titanic. Still, it takes too long to get to there and the constant presence of So-hee is a buzz-kill. Don’t misunderstand, Kim Soo-ahn is very good in the part—perhaps too good. She is just so young and innocent-looking, it is exhausting in a not-so-fun kind of way to be constantly worrying about her.

Oddly, Hwang Jung-min, who ordinarily swaggers he way through films, is uncharacteristically whiny and churlish as Lee, the swinging scrounger. Instead, it is So Ji-sub who delivers the hardnosed in-your-face attitude as Choi Chil-sung, a gangster who turns rebel after getting shanghaied to Hashima. Plus, the ever-reliable Lee Kyoung-young do his thing as the crafty Yoon, as usual.

This is a huge period production built around oppressively imposing concrete and steel sets and locations. It is easy to understand how Hashima beat down prisoners/laborers as soon as the set foot on the island. Still, it would not have killed anyone, if Ryoo had scored a few less points against the Japanese by tightening up the first and second acts. Nevertheless, anyone in the mood to follow-up Dunkirk with another high-body-count war epic should find Ryoo’s latest fits the bill (but Operation Chromite and My Way are even better). Recommended for fans of Korean historical tragedies, Battleship Island opens this Friday (8/4) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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