Ryoo Seung-wan (3rd from L), director of "The Battleship Island," poses with cast members -- from left, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Soo-an, So Ji-sub, Lee Jung-hyun and Song Joong-ki -- during a news conference for the film at a theater of the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul on June 15, 2017. (Yonhap)
In February, the much anticipated historical action film "The Battleship Island" (군함도) rose to the media spotlight in Japan even before its completion when a conservative daily criticized it for "distorting" common history between the two countries.
The blockbuster depicts Koreans' desperate attempt to escape coal mines on Japan's Hashima Island where they were forced to work during World War II, when Korea was a colony of Japan. The film stars A-list actors Hwang Jung-min, So Ji-sub and Song Joong-ki, and actress Lee Jung-hyun.
The Sankei Shimbun newspaper, however, then angered Koreans by claiming that the film's description of Hashima as a "hell island" and the forced labor of Korean teenage boys there are far from the truth, quoting a Korean-Japanese university professor.
"The film is a fact-based fiction," the film's director Ryoo Seung-wan said during a news conference Thursday for the movie set to open next month.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan speaks during a news conference for his new film "The Battleship Island" at a theater in the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul on June 15, 2017. (Yonhap)
"Many Koreans were forced into labor after an order to mobilize all Koreans was in place, and they didn't get their due wages and humane treatment. These are facts as far as I've studied. There are records backing them up and surviving victims. And it also is a fact that they had to go up to 1,000 meters below sea level to unearth coal."
According to a South Korean government report released in 2012, about 500 to 800 Koreans are believed to be put to work in cramped and stifling spaces at undersea coal mines on the island off the coast of Nagasaki between 1943 to 1945 and 143 of them died there of diseases, malnutrition and accidents. The island is known in English as Battleship Island for its silhouette resembling a destroyer.
The writer-director best known for "Veteran" (2015) said he tried to portray the historical background and spatial settings as close to reality as possible, but the dramatic story of the massive escape and the life story of each character came from his own imagination.
Questioned by a Japanese reporter about if the film would affect South Korea-Japan relations when it is unveiled, Ryoo answered: "I'm a person who wishes that relations will improve. ... But it's important to deal with problems and solve them, if there are any."
He said once the film is revealed, the current Japanese concerns over the film would disappear because it is not a kind of movie intended to instigate anti-Japanese or nationalistic sentiment.
"This is a film about the attitudes and minds that any ordinary man can have or more fundamentally about the mankind and war," he stressed. "It shows how war can make man a monster."
Hashima Island, also known as Battleship Island, off the coast of Nagasaki.
Ryoo said the film started from an aerial photo of the island that the chief of the film's production company and co-writer showed him in 2015.
"I learned about the presence of the island for the first time from the photo. I was overwhelmed by the bizarre image," he said, adding that his curiosity about Koreans who lived and worked there drove him to make a film about them.
For the film, he built a set that is about two-thirds the real size of the 63,000-square-meter island packed with mines, a school, apartment buildings, restaurants and pubs, in Chuncheon, 85 kilometers east of Seoul. It cost some 25 billion won (US$22.2 million) to produce the film, five times higher than the 5 billion production cost for average local films.
"After visiting the island, I wanted to recreate the scene somehow. It would have been fake if the feelings I received from the island were not conveyed to the actors," he said when asked about the motive of building the huge film set. "Everybody challenged to the maximum that can be produced in Korean films. I think I made a good result."
Actor Song Joong-ki speaks during a news conference for "The Battleship Island" at a theater in the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul on June 15, 2017. (Yonhap)
Also on hand the news conference were its main cast members Hwang Jung-min, Kim Soo-an, So Ji-sub and Song Joong-ki, and Lee Jung-hyun.
Song Joong-ki, who rose to Asian-wide fame last year for his lead role in the TV series "Descendants of the Sun," said the fact that the film is based on facts from sad Korean history put too much pressure on him but that taking part in Ryoo's new work was a great experience. The actor last appeared on the big screen in "A Werewolf Boy" (2012).
In the new film, he played the role of Park Moo-yeong, a Korean independence army member sneaked into the island for a mission to save an important anti-Japanese fighter but determines to help the forced Korean laborers escape the island.
"I went to the army after finishing the previous film. I wanted to return to my career through a film but couldn't because of many reasons. So, 'The Battleship Island' means much to me," he said, adding that he learned much from the experience of working with top-level actors and movie staff.
For the veteran actor Hwang Jung-min, this marks his third work together with Ryoo after "The Unjust" (2010) and "Veteran."
His character in the new film is Lee Gang-ok, a popular bandmaster of a Seoul hotel who comes to the island with his young singer-dancer daughter So-hee (Kim Soo-an), deceived by a broker who told him he could make a fortune there.
So performed intense action scenes as Choi Chil-seong, the leader of a gang organization in Seoul's central Jongno area, while Lee played Mal-nyeon, a former sex slave for Japanese soldiers sent to work at a brothel in the island.