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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] ‘The Battleship Island’ twists a bitter history

The 2017 movie fails to provide a balanced look at Korea and Japan’s complicated past
July 15,2019
Hashima Island, located near Nagasaki, Japan, is also called Battleship Island due to its warship-like appearance. While the island is a symbol of rapid industrialization of Japan, it is also a reminder of its bitter history as a site of forced labor of Koreans during World War II. Despite fierce criticisms from Korea, the island was registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015. [JOONGANG ILBO]
In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.

Since the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies needed to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II in October, the diplomatic relationship between the two countries has become increasingly tense. The conflict worsened recently when Japan enforced restrictions on industrial exports to Korea as an economic retaliatory measure. Japan insists that the issue of forced labor was fully settled in 1965 when the two countries restored diplomatic relations.

To learn more about the forced labor issue, many young Koreans and people from outside of the region unfamiliar with this bitter history are turning to old articles, documentaries and more to learn more information about what exactly happened between Japan and Korea.

The big-budget period piece“The Battleship Island” (2017) may be one of their choices. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, the movie is about Korean forced laborers on Japan’s Hashima Island, also called Battleship Island due to its warship-like appearance, during World War II. Featuring veteran actors like Hwang Jung-min, So Ji-sub and Song Joong-ki, the film, despite the controversies it aroused after the release, sold 6.59 million tickets domestically. Many who saw the film insist that the high ticket sales were due to film distributor CJ E&M’s screen monopoly, rather than because of the movie itself.

The film was heavily criticized by patriotic Koreans for purposely avoiding the typical “good Koreans, bad Japanese” narrative. Yet many theatergoers still insisted the movie had too many elements of nationalism, with many calling it a gukbbong (a portmanteau of the Korean words for country and methamphetamines, denoting a blind obsession with patriotism) film. Some Japanese groups also denounced the film, arguing that the story was entirely made up. Even Korean survivors of Hashima appeared in interviews saying that “imaginary parts have been added to the movie.”

Of course, director Ryoo said before the release that fictional elements had been added to the film to more dramatically tell the story of the laborers who were forcibly taken to Hashima and work in coal mines during the Japanese colonial era (1910-45), emphasizing that the film is not a documentary. The lead characters who appear in the film for example - a bandmaster, played by Hwang, with his daughter, played by Kim Soo-ahn; the gang leader, played by So, and former comfort woman played by Lee Jung-hyun - are all fictional. Yet the reason all those Koreans ended up in Hashima is based in fact: They were forcibly taken by the Japanese government.

When Korea was a colony of Japan, Tokyo ordered the Japanese Government General of Korea to summon Koreans by regional groups to fill up the quota needed for a labor force. Many young men and women were taken to Japan against their will to work in the mines, steel mills and shipyards of Japan. One of them was Battleship Island, to which some 800 Koreans were transferred between 1939-45, with 134 of them dying while working there, according to official data. Survivors of Hashima, such as Kim Hyung-seok, said in an interview with local media that the head of his village said a draft notice was issued; therefore, he had to follow the others. That was Nov. 17, 1943.

In order to avoid the “good Koreans, bad Japanese” narrative, the director also put a spotlight on the harsh exploitation of the Korean laborers by creating fictional pro-Japanese Korean characters. For example, the director, who also wrote the screenplay, created an independence fighter named Yoon Hak-cheol (played by Lee Gyeung-young) who also gets taken to Hashima Island. In front of the Korean laborers, he pretends to negotiate with the Japanese officials for the Korean people but secretly makes deals with the Japanese and together they embezzle the laborers’ wages.

Real survivors of Hashima, however, do not recall cruel treatments from the pro-Japanese Koreans. But their wages did get taken away from them, according to the survivors’ testimonies and they failed to receive what they were initially promised.

The ending of the film, the most dramatic part, is mostly fiction. Actor Song, who plays Moo-young, an agent with the U.S. Army comes to the Island to save Yoon, the independence fighter. After realizing he is a betrayer, Moo-young shoots him dead and leads hundreds of Koreans out of the island. Koreans work together and help each other and sacrifice their own lives to fight the Japanese forces and escape from Battleship Island. According to historical records, after the U.S. detonated a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, a city located next to the island, and another one in Hiroshima, in 1945 all the coal mining came to a halt on the Hashima Island as the electricity was cut off. The Japanese government transferred the Korean forced laborers on Hashima Island to Nagasaki to clean up the wrecked city and they later fell victim to radiation exposure.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]