A History of Violence: “The Battleship Island” and “A Taxi Driver” Revisit Pieces of Korea’s Tumultuous Past

From an infamous Japanese forced labor camp in 1945 to the Gwangju Democratization Movement – and subsequent massacre – in 1980.

Korean films are excellent at combining these three elements: humor, poignant acting, and historical relevance with emotional appeal. Both The Battleship Island and A Taxi Driver accomplishes all three things, although I believe one film is overall more superior than the other. First, let’s talk about The Battleship Island.

I’ve discussed the relationship between Korea and Japan before, so I won’t go into it again now, but the film takes place on Hashima Island during the twilight of World War II. The plot revolves around hundreds of forced labor workers planning a riveting prison escape with a couple of subplots thrown in for good measure.

In terms of humor, there isn’t all that much present here actually. Most of it comes in the form of actor Hwang Jung-min, who gets tricked into going to the island with his daughter instead of going to Japan. He’s a bandmaster who rises up in the ranks thanks to his musical talents (along with his band members) as well as his generally appealing – if initially morally dubious – personality.

Hwang is a phenomenal actor who I’ve actually seen before in a Korean drama called The Accidental Couple from 2009. It’s one of my favorites, actually, and I recommend it! Anyway, in terms of acting, Hwang carries a significant portion of the clout and is one of the main reasons why the film succeeds in the way it does.

On the other hand, the younger (and more popular tsk tsk) actor Song Joong-ki doesn’t do too well here. He’s a Korean Independence Movement resistance fighter who infiltrates the camp to rescue another independence fighter of great importance. I don’t know if it’s his pretty boy looks, or soft features, but I didn’t think it was a very good casting choice. Somebody more appropriate would have been a guy like Jang Hyuk, who is on another level as an actor, but more importantly, looks like he could actually be an effective and deadly soldier.

Soft.

Overall though, the acting was very good across the board. Thanks also to steady directing and the weight carried by Hwang Jung-min, I thought the pacing was decent as well. I read a review on IMDb that absolutely blasted this movie, but I thought it was way off after seeing the film for myself. It’s actually quite entertaining despite its serious subject matter (maybe “engaging” is a better word).

Honestly it was hard to watch this movie and not get a little emotional especially near the climactic scenes. It’s probably because I’m Korean, but seeing Korean people suffer strikes me extra hard. This movie is definitely guilty of playing up the emotional appeal as much as possible. They didn’t overdo it though. And that’s important.

All in all, I thought this was a solid movie. The climax was tremendous and emotional, but the journey was also a thrill to experience. The only thing I have left to say is that in a bizarre coincidence, the same song that gets used in a lot of Modelo ads was played during a particularly inspirational sequence. It’s nobody’s fault of course, but it made me thirsty!

A Taxi Driver plays out much more like a drama with random spurts of comedy mixed in for good measure. With the exception of one car chase sequence, this is a much calmer film than The Battleship Island and it chooses to focus on a more clinical approach regarding the atrocities committed by government troops as they faced off against mostly peaceful protesters in a city under lockdown.

Song Kang-ho leads the way as a widowed Seoul taxi driver who tries to make some easy money to pay his late rent and support his young daughter. He gets in way over his head, however, as he unknowingly takes on what is essentially an escort mission for a German journalist (Thomas Kretschmann) to infiltrate the city and record what is really happening.

Everybody’s acting was really strong, which is what you need in any good drama. There was a good variety of character types, from the taxi driver’s determined but relatively lighthearted personality to the journalist who initially appears to be very smooth and almost arrogant, only to break down from filming and witnessing the actions that take place over the course of a few days. Of course, the supporting cast was great too, including Yoo Hae-jin as a Gwangju taxi driver and Ryu Jun-yeol as a university student.

Like I said before, this film is much more of a drama than an action film and therefore relies less on heavy climactic sequences to get the point across. Having said that, I still thought there was almost too little emotional appeal here. On one hand, it made for a much more evenhanded film. On the other hand, I felt like something was missing as I walked out of the movie theater; it was similar to the feeling I had after I walked out of Dunkirk, actually.

Both A Taxi Driver and Dunkirk are strong films, but their lack of desire to approach the audience through a genuinely emotional angle was a mistake in my opinion. While this film still did it better than Dunkirk, it was negligible compared to the sweeping cinematography and music that one would find in The Battleship Island.

However, I did prefer A Taxi Driver over The Battleship Island. Action films are a dime a dozen, and although the historical importance of what Japan did to Korea can’t be denied, it’s harder to find films like A Taxi Driver that can combine both somber elements of history while getting the audience to laugh a lot. Even more impressive is that it doesn’t utilize satire or parody at all. It’s an accomplishment worth lauding… and so I’m doing it now!

For people relatively new to Korean cinema, I do recommend both films. They bring a lot to the table in their own ways and it’s always a treat to see the trifecta of humor, acting, and history competently brought together.