Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: THE BATTLESHIP ISLAND, Impressive Action Torpedoed by Nationalism

By Pierce Conran

UPDATE (Aug 8): Following a rare change of heart after seeing the film a second time, I've decided to change my original star rating The Battleship Island. I can't say that my criticisms are any different, but watching the film without having to sort through the dense story and its characters allowed me to appreciate many of the film's impressive details.

Following a pair of blockbusters, action maestro Ryoo Seung-wan aims to outdo his past successes with The Battleship Island, the biggest Korean release of the year. Set on a Japanese labor camp island, this star-driven, big-budget period escape drama strives for greatness but falls short, with a harried narrative too consumed with nationalist sentiment. That said, a bombastic climax sees Ryoo and his team put their best feet (and fists) forward in an impressive display of choreography and staging.

Towards the end of World War II, while Korea was still a colony of the Japanese Empire, a group of Koreans unwittingly find themselves on a boat headed to Hashima Island, which houses a small mining town now used as a wartime labor camp. Among the group are a bandmaster and his tap-dancing daughter, a gruff street fighter and a no-nonsense woman from the countryside. The island camp is run by cruel imperialists while the micro-managing is handled by a sycophantic group of Koreans, although a longtime elder commands respect within the camp. Later on, a resistance fighter sneaks onto the island and attempts to stage a massive breakout.

The above premise is simple enough, yet on screen it quickly becomes a mess, with dozens of additional characters running around in their own separate storylines. There's never a moment to catch one's breath, with actors shouting their lines and barreling through massive sound-stages, while the camera whooshes to and fro. The emotional highs and lows begin to bleed into one another and it becomes hard to stop and take in the impressive scale of the production.

Veteran may have been unexpectedly successful (it is currently the third most successful film of all time in Korea), but it's a shame that Ryoo couldn't carry over more of the fun and simplicity of that story to the grander production he tackles here. With added layers of jingoism, unearned melodrama and heaps of in-your-face production values, all nuance is lost, which in the end does a massive disservice to what is a very intriguing story.

The film assembles the starriest lineup of 2017, which includes Hwang Jung-min, Song Joong-ki, So Ji-sub, Lee Hyun-jung and Kim Su-an among others. Hwang, who has worked with Ryoo on The Unjust and Veteran, and headlined a string of box office smashes in the last five years, yuks it up as the bandleader in one of his showier roles. Though not without its charms, it wears thin over time. Superstar Song, last seen in A Werewolf Boy, is the serious and handsome hero of the piece, in a part that is functional but little more. So, of A Company Man, plays another empty tough guy, while Lee of Alice in Earnestland puts on her best country accent for another of the film's thin roles.

But enough with the criticisms, as it's not all bad news for The Battleship Island, which excels in at least two departments. One is the young actress Kim Su-an, who already melted many a heart in last year's Train to Busan, and is still just 11 years old. Opposite a roster of stars, some of whose careers span two or more of her lifespans, she outshines everyone by being the only performer able to evoke an emotional reaction. Yes, her character is designed to provoke a response, but when most Korean child actors wheel through histrionics, her naturalistic performance is a marvel.

Then there's the huge climax, as a battle erupts on the island and it becomes do or die for everyone involved. Each thread and character is pulled into this sequence to varying levels of success, but Ryoo's mastery of the scale and energy of the set piece is breath-taking. DP Lee Mo-gae's knack for imagery eventually comes through in several striking tableaux, and the mix of sweeping vistas, pyrotechnics and Jung Doo-hong's choreography within the chaos make the sequence both a ravishing and bludgeoning feast for the senses.

The Battleship Island has technical pizazz aplenty but Ryoo's tenth film is ultimately a major disappointment that indulges in some of the worst impulses of commercial Korean cinema. That said, the film is poised to be a box office bonanza and Ryoo should be back on set soon, reportedly with The Berlin File 2. Let's hope he can rein it in a little next time.


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