During the press conference in Kuala Lumpur, veteran South Korean actor Hwang Jung Min’s sense of humour was evident.
He playfully lamented how unfair it was that his on-screen daughter (played by Kim Su An, Train To Busan) would reserve the best candies for his co-star Song Joong Ki and not him!
However, her acting skills are no laughing matter, as Hwang had unreserved praise for the 11-year-old’s talent.
Hwang was in KL recently with other A-listers Song Joong Ki and So Ji Sub, accompanied by acclaimed director Ryoo Seung Wan, to talk about their latest historical-based action film.
The Battleship Island is set in 1945 during Japan’s colonial era, when hundreds of Koreans were sent to work as forced labour in a Japanese-run coal mine on Hashima Island. Also known as Battleship Island due to its aerial resemblance to one, Hashima is an abandoned island about 15km off the coast of Nagasaki and the site of Japan’s first major undersea coal exploitation.
The movie centres on smooth-talking band leader Lee Gang Ok, played by Hwang, who is sent to the island with his daughter and band members after being duped by corrupt officials.
Hwang, 46, who won Best Actor in the 2015 Grand Bell Award, is known for hit movies that include The Himalayas, Veteran (currently the 3rd highest grossing film in South Korean cinema’s history) and Ode To My Father.
Song plays Park Moo-young, an elite soldier with the Korean Liberation Army and a US Office of Strategic Services agent, who infiltrates the island to rescue a key independence movement figure.
On the island, Park teams up with Lee and street fighter Choi Chil-sung (played by So) to carry out a daring escape plan to lead all the 400 prisoners on the island to freedom.
According to Korea’s Yonhap News, The Battleship Island is the fastest movie to reach five million tickets sold in South Korea – within eight days of its release – and one of the biggest local releases this year. The movie is set to screen in 155 countries.
Since its release in South Korea on July 27, there has been some criticism, including historical distortion, of how the movie’s description of forced labour details were inaccurate, and how it also seemed to downplay the level of cruelty and injustice shown by the Japanese towards the Koreans during that time.
However, Ryoo defends the film by calling it a “fact-based fiction”, saying it took four years of careful research and shooting to put it together.
At the press conference, Ryoo, 43, said he was curious to see the response of audiences outside of Korea to his latest work.
“I really wonder what foreign audiences’ feedback will be like for our movie. I know that Malaysia has also suffered pain during the Japanese colonial era,” he said, via a translator.
The Battleship Island is also Ryoo’s costliest production yet – largely due to the massive set built to recreate the coal mines – with a budget of US$19.5mil (RM82.5mil) according to Korea Herald.
Filming took slightly over six months to complete, with a set two-thirds the size of the actual island built in Chuncheon, 85km east of Seoul, South Korea.
Ryoo was inspired to make the film after seeing an aerial photo of the island in 2015 and becoming curious about how the Koreans lived there.
Being a movie depicting the hardship of labourers who had to mine for coal 1,000m below sea level, the cast and crew had to put in some long gruelling hours.
When asked about this, Ryoo reflectively said, “During filming, we experienced many difficult moments, but whenever we thought of the real victims and the hardship they went through back then, ours was nothing compared to theirs.”
Song, 31, said the movie incorporated many dangerous scenes but praised Ryoo for being experienced and professional, leading to a smooth filming process.
“Since the movie was based on true accounts, I am also touched by the level of detail put into the movie by our director,” said Song, who shot to fame after the 2016 hit drama Descendants Of The Sun.
The beginning of the film sees an intense fighting scene that involves So in the common bathing area (clad in nothing but umm, a loincloth).
Known for movies that include Always and Sophie’s Revenge, So, 39, said he took one and a half months to prepare for that scene.
The Oh My Venus actor also accepted the role of Choi without first reading the script.
“As soon as I knew that the director was Ryoo, I said OK because I have always wanted to work with him,” related So with a smile.
The Battleship Island marks the third time that Hwang has worked with Ryoo (after Veteran and Unjust). The talented artiste, who started his career as a stage actor, shared that one of the key challenges while making the movie involved the escape sequence.
“The escape scene was only about 20 minutes long in the movie but it took about one month to shoot. Maintaining that same energy throughout the scene was a bit difficult,” said the Gallup Korea 2016 Actor of the Year.
However, it was that scene which struck a chord with the actors with its strong message of hope.
Said So, “The movie also ends with a powerful expression that represents pain, fear and hope, and I like that scene the most.”