The name of and the setting for the South Korean historical fantasy action-drama "The Battlefield Island" (NR, 2:12) is rooted in a fascinating but little-known and previously nearly forgotten chapter from Japanese and Korean history. Japan's Hashima Island lies off the shoreline of Nagasaki and gets its more famous nickname of Battlefield Island (Gunkanjima in Japanese) because of its oblong shape and especially how it looks from above, with the sea walls and many concrete buildings added. Beginning in 1887, during Japan's rapid industrialization program, Hashima became home to a mining operation which took coal from under the sea. Meanwhile, history also tells us that in 1910, Japan annexed Korea.
During World War II, this colony to the west of Japan was expected to support the country's war effort, including supplying troops to fight the Emperor's battles and workers to mine coal, in order to keep the Japanese war machine chugging along. Although the island's mines employed Japanese workers in various numbers from 1887 through 1974, and Hashima became an important symbol of Japanese modernization, its period as home to Koreans subjected to forced labor and horrible conditions is a blight on its past. (That complicated history required a political compromise between Japan and Korea before Hashima was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, part of the group of places called "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining".) This film imagines what an uprising and attempted escape by those Korean workers might have looked like.
Lee Kang-OK (Hwang Jung-min) is a bandleader in Korea during World War II. He is the single father to Lee So-hee (Kim Su-an), a precocious but talented little girl who sings and dances with her father's band. Kang-OK decides to take his band and his daughter to Japan where he believes they will be safer. The group ends up on a ship which is destined for the location of the film's title. During the intake process for the island's new workers, Kang-OK desperately works to convince the officials there that he and his bandmates are in the wrong place. While the musicians are not allowed to leave the island, the island's director does spare them from the coal mines and allows them to serve him as musicians and in other capacities. Kang- OK is also able to get permission for his daughter to continue performing with the band and work in a domestic capacity, where she is looked after by the island's "comfort women", especially Oh Mal- nyeon (Lee Jung-hyun). Although she is still a young girl, So-hee is sometimes dressed up and made up like the comfort women and, under the control of the island's director, her safety seems far from certain. Kang-OK does what he can to see and protect his daughter (within the tough restrictions the Japanese place on the Korean workers) and becomes increasingly desperate to get her off the island.
Most of Battleship Island's Japanese and Korean residents work in the undersea coal mines, in harsh and dangerous conditions. This is especially true of the Korean forced laborers who are treated by their Japanese supervisors and guards as slaves, with no thought given to their safety or even their survival. Within the group, a Korean gangster named Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub) literally fights for and earns the right to become the unofficial leader of the Koreans on the island, a situation which could either benefit or harm Kang-OK's efforts to get himself and his daughter off the island. Meanwhile, a Korean agent trained by the Americans arrives on the island posing as a worker. His mission is to arrange the escape of an aging and highly respected Korean resistance leader (Lee Geung-young) who is being held captive on the island, a situation which Kang-OK also tries to use for his benefit. As these circumstances come to a head, the Japanese military officials in charge of the island are coming to the realization that the war is nearing its end, that Japan is likely to lose and that they must make take drastic action to ensure their own survival in the aftermath. The film's plot and subplots all culminate in a daring attempt by the Korean workers to escape Battlefield Island and sail back to Korea, just at the moment history tells us that the Americans are about to take drastic actions of their own which will definitely end the war.
"The Battlefield Island" is an enthralling and fantastically entertaining historical fantasy. It feels like a South Korean mix of 1997's Oscar-winning "Life is Beautiful" and the 2001 TV miniseries "Uprising", just with Japanese Imperial forces instead of Nazis and South Korean forced laborers standing in for European Jews. The fact that the main story is complete fiction is almost immaterial, especially set against the backdrop of a real place and an actual chapter in World War II history. In that sense, it may remind Movie Fans of Quentin Tarantino's 2009 historical fantasy "Inglourious Basterds". Although most people know that no plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler ever succeeded, that didn't make the movie any less enjoyable. This film is on a scale and has production values which stand up to some of the best Hollywood blockbusters, but with a decidedly Asian bent. Director Seung-wan Ryoo ("Veteran", "The Berlin File", "The City of Violence") skillfully balances the story's action with its tender moments and its brutality with its humanity, giving audiences worldwide a film that deserves to be seen by all Movie Fans, even those who are most averse to seeing movies with subtitles. Although some of the plot points are a bit too far-fetched, this is an exceptional film, not to be missed. "A"