Review: ‘The Battleship Island’ a thousand times better than the usual Korean TV melodramas

Marcus Goh
The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 132 minutes (~2.25 hours)

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

“The Battleship Island” is a South Korean war drama in Korean and Japanese.

The film is set in World War II, and focuses on the events on Hashima Island (nicknamed Battleship Island), a Japanese island with a forced labour camp made up mostly of Koreans. It depicts the events on the island and their attempted escape from the island.

“The Battleship Island” is direct and written by Ryoo Seung-wan. It stars Hwang Jung-min (Lee Kang-ok), So Ji-sub (Choi Chil-sung), Song Joong-ki (Park Moo-young), Lee Jung-hyun (Oh Mal-nyeon), and Kim Su-an (Lee So-hee). It is rated NC-16.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

“The Battleship Island” is a classic example of how large the gap between Korean film and Korean television is. It’s a superbly written, magnificently directed, and gloriously executed story that, surprisingly, isn’t as pro-Korean as you might expect (thanks to its diverse cast of characters).

It’s leagues above Korean television drivel like “Descendants of the Sun”, especially in terms of storytelling technique. Even if you’ve never been a fan of Korean media, you should catch “The Battleship Island”. It’s a masterpiece that transcends language and culture.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)


Kim Su-an steals the show as Lee So-hee

If Kim Su-an looks familiar, that’s because she was the child star of “Train to Busan”. However, she has a much larger role in “The Battleship Island” that showcases just how wide her acting range is. She doesn’t tug on the heartstrings because she’s a child — it’s her desperation, love, and tainted innocence that truly highlights the atrocities of war. She might not be one of the major characters, but her role in the film is what gives it its powerful emotional resonance.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

Incredibly dramatic and impactful

While “The Battleship Island” is not a fast-paced film (neither is it a slow art film, for that matter), every scene is crucial and stirring. It reaches a crescendo much faster than expected, and maintains that tempo until the end of the film. It balances the personal stories of the victims on the island with the larger national narrative that is World War II. Its significance on both levels is what makes it such a memorable film.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

Excellent war sequences

No World War II film would be complete without a battle sequence, and that’s exactly what “The Battleship Island” delivers. It’s a gigantic, spectacular set-piece that shows you how painful and pointless war is, with multiple casualties on either side. However, it also fulfils its function by giving us action and excitement, making us worry for the fates of the characters. Inevitably, tragedy strikes, but not in the way you’d expect.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

Purposeful grit and violence

Since it’s war film, grit and violence are a necessity. But beyond the obvious fan service sequences for So Ji-sub and Song Joong-ki, all the other displays of gore and violence serve a specific purpose. Rarely do you have gratuitous injuries and bloodshed (though you can expect to see many such scenes given its NC-16 rating), and the grit is meant to evoke emotions, rather than for the sake of pretentious art. The darker aspects of the film are well-placed and well-used, and contribute to its tremendous dramatic impact.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

Informative about war-time events

Several interesting scenes show us how innovative people can be during war-time, and the surprising number of resources available to the prisoners. Visually, it drives home the suffering and horrors that the forced labourers had to go through, as well as the lethal environments that the coal miners had to work in. In terms of educational value, it’s an eye-opener about the war-time experience.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)


Park Moo-young feels like a Mary Sue

The problem with Park Moo-young is that he’s good at everything and is literally dropped into the middle of the film to solve everyone’s problems. He has no flaws and no imperfections, and feels a little like a plot device rather than an actual character at times. His role is also derivative of his previous one in the aforementioned “Descendants of the Sun”, and feels like a publicity stunt rather than a role that is really warranted.

The Battleship Island (Golden Village Pictures)

“The Battleship Island” succeeds on so many levels because it balances action, drama, facts, emotions, and a little bit of romance against a backdrop of life, death, and suffering, and it could very well be movie of the year. If you love a good film, then “The Battleship Island” will definitely delight.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this more than once? Why not?

Score: 4.9/5

“The Battleship Island” opens in cinemas:
– 17 August, 2017 (Singapore)


Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for “Police & Thief”, “Incredible Tales”, “Crimewatch”, and “Point of Entry”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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