Sitges 2017 Review: The Battleship Island is the heartbreaking and violent war epic you’ve been waiting for
This epic war film gives you incredible set pieces, big action scenes but also an incredible and heartbreaking human story.
Just when I thought I was done with WWII films, The Battleship Island comes along and reminded me why I love epic films like Return of the King, Saving Private Ryan, or Lawrence of Arabia. Not only is the action as grand and majestic as with the films just mentioned, but the story is human and soul crushing with a cynic look at human being in terrible situations. There are not conventional heroes in The Battleship Island, only people trying to survive the best way they can – even if it means betraying your countrymen.
The film is set in a Japanese forced labor camp on Hashima Island, just before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chinese prisoners of war, and Korean conscripted civilians get sent here to work under the worst possible conditions in undersea coal mines. From the moment The Battleship Island begins, we are thrown into hell on Earth. Kids get trapped in subterranean mines, gas leaks, people get beaten or shot. There is no escape from this.
This is an ensemble film, and we mostly follow former bandmaster at a hotel, Gang-ok (played by Jung-min Hwang) and his daughter Sohee – played by Train to Busan’s incredible lead Su-an Kim. While trying to move to Japan seeking a better life, they get sent to Hashima Island instead, together with a plethora of other characters who enrich the world of The Battleship Island and Gang-ok’s story.
Women on the island are sent to “pleasure houses” to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese, no matter their age. Men get sent to the mines, and get constantly beaten up by Japanese officials, or their own countrymen who serve as middlemen.
The Battleship Island reminds us time and again that war destroys people, and forces them to betray all they hold dear. Characters who we believe to be heroes bribe, cheat, lie and blackmail other characters for petty things. People lick sticks of dynamite for sustenance. Even our main hero starts a bribing network where only he gets the spoils. The film tries to tell you there are no heroes here, only survivors.
The film is as much about war and action as it is a political film about the damage done on Korea during the war, and the way the Korean people were forever divided by suffering.
The first thing you notice when you see The Battleship Island is the incredible set design. The prison island comes to life in massive lifelike set pieces. From the dangers of the mines, to the number of makeshift buildings around the island, you feel like you entered a real place.
Then there’s Seung-wan Ryoo’s directing. He makes everyday life feel epic in The Battleship Island. Small moments when there’s a gas leak on the mines feel life-threatening, and the camera moves like a serpent, following all our characters in swift movements.
The Battleship Island finally explodes in an epic third act that will remind you not only of Spielberg’s war dramas, but even epic set pieces like Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.
Ryoo makes it all work not because of the explosions and countless deaths, but because we care about the characters making it out of that island – it also helps that instead of a new piece of music, the prison escape is scored by “The Ecstasy of Gold” which put a big smile on my face as I stared in awe of what this film accomplished.