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Battleship Island, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Eventually, something close to a great escape."
4 stars

"The Battleship Island" advertises itself as being based upon true events, and it's messy enough for me to buy that even if it's also got the sort of finale that seems a bit too good to be true. It's a fairly brutal war movie at times, especially when it gets elbow-deep in both torment and double-crosses, although it walks the line between being gratuitous and honest in its horror.

Japan's Nishima Island is shaped like a battleship, but it's got a coal mine where the engine would be, and during World War II, that mine was operated in part by conscripted Korean labor. The latest group being brought from the mainland is a motley one - famous gangster Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), grad student Oh Jang-woo (Jang Sung-bum), escaped comfort woman Mal-nyon (Lee Jung-hyun), and a nine-piece band led by Lee Gang-ok (Hwang Jung-min) that includes his pre-teen daughter Sohee (Kim Soo-ahn). No escape attempt from the island has been successful, but that may change this time out - Allied Intelligence has learned that Korean Liberation Army leader Yoon Hak-chul (Lee Kyoung-young) is among the miners, and has sent OSS agent Park Moo-young (Song Joong-ki) in to extract him.

Writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan wastes no time in making Nishima a vision of hell in a sweaty black-and-white opening gambit that establishes that aside from grimy, sweaty conditions, the miners must deal with venting gases in shafts that have been dug underneath the sea floor, with cruel humiliations awaiting those who die trying to escape. It's not the kind of environment that calls out for subtle work, and Ryoo doesn't have a lot of nuance to give, which generally serves the film pretty well. Even considering that this was a historically bad place, combining the worst aspects of Dickensian labor and wartime atrocities, there are times when the movie seems to be pushing it: Manager Daisuke Shimazaki (Kim In-woo) looks like a cartoon villain even standing next to the more thuggish Yamada (Kim Joong-hee), and early scenes of Sohee being grouped in with the comfort women can sometimes feel like they get their tension from how far Ryoo is going to push things rather than how far the characters are going to go.

There are stretches in the movie, especially early on as the audience is being introduced to Gang-ok in Seoul, when the grimness is turned down a notch or two, and they do highlight how generally solid the filmmaking is as a whole - as much as Nishima is a shock, the film never lets the audience forget that this is a wartime/occupation setting. He makes sure that extends to the main section of the film so that there's never relief, per se; there's never a moment where a viewer is likely inclined to think how cute Sohee looks in her cute dress once she's on the island even though the filmmakers avoid the obviously horrific there, for instance. Ryoo and his crew are also very good at using scale and detail to their advantage - there are a lot of settings that are fairly big or intricate, but it's relatively rare for the audience to be struck by the technical achievements compared to what's going on.

The cast is large enough and uniformly covered in enough coal dust that one can sometimes lose track of them a bit, especially when minor characters disappear and pop up again later, but they do good work. Hwang Jung-min does a nice job of removing the slickness from Gang-ok as the movie goes on, going lower-key even though Ryoo and co-writer Shin Kyoung-il are still using his ability to talk his way into and out of trouble as his biggest survival skill. He plays well off Kim Soo-ahn (whom folks may remember as the little girl in Train to Busan), who actually gets a pretty good arc to play going from the jaded showbiz kid to rightfully terrified to braver than she thinks. Song Joong-ki ably makes sure that there's a streak of ego in Park's focus on his mission, the same way Lee Kyoung-young keeps Yoon pragmatic in a way that doesn't quite boost the nobility people are inclined to see in him. I wonder if there's a longer cut, either discarded or awaiting home video, where So Ji-sub's Chil-sung and Lee Jung-hyun's Mal-nyon have larger roles; they don't quite disappear in the middle but they don't get as much material as one might expect from prominent introductions, and the way they're often paired in the homestretch makes it seem like something's been skipped over.

For all that the film bogs down in the middle, grinding through a bit of plot or throwing in a fight or some other bit of violence to keep one's attention, it gets impressively intense once the big break-out starts. Ryoo has probably gone a bit overboard in making sure the audience knows what sort of massive clock is ticking in the background without the characters being aware, especially the final escape is darn impressive in how it combines the thrills of an action-movie finale with a genuine, sustained sense of desperation. Ryoo has always been good at action, and that certainly doesn't fail him here - he lays out an escape plan that's got a lot going on and manages to make each facet exciting, but is also very good at showing how characters change course when things go wrong without a whole lot of explanation, and even when he's not pouring on the blood and mayhem, he makes sure that things never feel easy or without cost. There may be a moment or two that doesn't feel entirely earned, but he never loses track of the scale - a 400-person breakout is a huge thing that will inevitably fall short of complete success - and he supplies a couple of coups de grace that lighter action movies would probably love to be able to pull off without it seeming excessive.

Then, of course, comes the solemn and sincere reminders that this was based upon true events, but the movie's in a good place for them. "The Battleship Island" plays like an old-school wartime adventure even if it has a more modern eye for how hellish and monstrous war can be, not trivializing its setting too much even as it mines excitement alongside coal.

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originally posted: 08/08/17 03:11:25
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  03-Aug-2017 (MA)

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