Wednesday 6 September 2017

The Current Cinema - John Snadden reports on two Asian hits WOLF WARRIOR 2 and THE BATTLESHIP ISLAND

Another tale of two films: one from Mainland China, WOLF WARRIOR 2, and the other from South Korea, THE BATTLESHIP ISLAND.

I wasn't in a big hurry to see WOLF WARRIOR 2, I found the original in 2015 to be like a 90-minute big screen advert for China's Special Forces Group. But with the sequel now approaching the highest ever box-office for a Chinese movie, it was probably time for some consideration to be given to this new Wu Jing movie.

Thankfully, WW#2 is much better than the first film, mainly because there has been a real effort made to soften the stars original cyborg-like character.

After being thrown out of the army, Feng Leng (Wu Jing) has become a selfless warrior for the oppressed; he draws people to him. He's tough, intelligent and resilient - and even survives a case of an Ebola-like disease. From the high seas to the African plains the action sequences are plentiful and well done, with a tank battle being a highlight of the movie. WW2 is a Mainland production but does benefit from HK film personnel like Jack Wong (TRIVISA, OPERATION MEKONG) as the second unit director, and Peter Ngor's (FULL CONTACT, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS) crisp widescreen cinematography.

But even with Wu Jing's martial-arts skills and obvious bravery, it's still the Chinese military which is ultimately calling the shots, as a desperately needed sea-to-land missile barrage eventually shows. And yes, there will definitely be a WOLF WARRIOR 3.

There's a long standing adage in modern Asian film-making which says hardly ever does a producer lose money when making a film about Japanese war crimes committed during World War 2. (The MAN BEHIND THE SUN series being a good example.)

THE BATTLESHIP ISLAND is set in the final months of the Second World War and is about Korean workers who were sent to the Japanese controlled Hashima Island*, where they were used as slave labour in a large coal mine. The conditions on this island were hellish and these civilian vassals were expected to die from either the work, the mine, the rampant disease or punishment from sadistic guards.

What director Ryoo Seung-wan (THE BERLIN FILE) has done here is create an exploitation movie masquerading as a big budget historical epic. From the plight of Korean comfort women to horrific mine deaths, the island is depicted as a charnel-house.

Kim Soo-ahn, The Battleship Island
Much of the story is seen through the eyes of two recent arrivals, a philandering band leader, Lee (Hwang Jung-min) and his young daughter Soo Hee (Kim Soo-ahn from TRAIN TO BUSAN), who gives the best performance in the film in a role which at times is quite harrowing.

The final 30 minutes involves a mass escape attempt by the imprisoned workers. These scenes are very violent and brutal, where a neck snap is the most explicit I think I've ever seen, which is quickly followed - in slo-mo - by the incineration and decapitation of a main character. Yes folks - it's that type of film!

But what you won't be expecting is the final shot in the closing scene where the horror of the present makes way for the unthinkable horror of the future. Exploitation or not, this was a truly powerful screen moment.

(*The now abandoned Hashima Island was used in the recent Bond film SKYFALL as the villains lair. How appropriate...)

The mass break-out, The Battleship Island

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