Korean cinema’s action maestro Ryoo Seung-wan has gone from strength to strength in recent years (The Berlin File, Veteran), with bigger budgets along the way. Unfortunately, The Battleship Island, his most audacious work yet, buries several strong elements in an overstuffed narrative, fueled by a tad too much nationalist sentiment.
Set on Japanese mining island Hashima (you may recognize it as the villain’s lair from Bond outing Skyfall) during WWII, Korean characters from different backgrounds fight for their survival and eventually plot a daring escape. The setting is mostly drawn from history—though the climax is an invention—but parts are included purely to provoke a reaction, including a horrific flashback to the torture of comfort women.
The film is notable for its superstar wattage (Song Joong-ki and So Ji-sub), yet it’s young actress Kim Su-an who steals the show as the daughter of the bandmaster played by a genial Hwang Jung-min; She’s the only person whose fate we become invested in during a story bogged down by too many characters.
Sublimely shot and designed, and terrifically choreographed by long-time Ryoo collaborator Jung Doo-hong—especially in one tile-crunching bout of bath fisticuffs—The Battleship Island is a technical marvel. It all comes to a close in a rousing climax choke full of striking images, but the film’s narrative machinations scupper the fun, never delivering their intended emotional punch.
Written by Pierce Conran