Joseon Kingdom, 1592. Busan port has fallen to foreign forces. The army was unprepared, the king has fled north. The Imjin war has started. In an attempt to block the enemy’s supply routes and turn the tide, Admiral Yi Sun-shin leads his naval forces to a potentially crucial victory. Hansan: Rising Dragon is set five years before director Kim Han-min’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014), which had been a resounding success at the Korean box office. The arrival of a prequel eight years later, with a new actor in the role, was both intriguing and exciting.
Hansan: Rising Dragon knows it must live up to the success of its predecessor, and so it immediately sets high expectations with a flashback of a naval battle that contains all the ingredients required to create a striking historical epic: sweeping camera movements over impressive practical/CGI sets, lush costumes, on-screen historical insights, and a solid dose of myth-making details. The film then proceeds to lay out the historical context of the coming conflict in a painstakingly detailed manner, as John Woo had done in his Red Cliff masterpiece, for instance. Though spectacle is of course on the menu, the film wants the audience to earn it (much like Roaring Currents) by allowing themselves to get immersed in this chapter of Korean history. The script thus revels in strategic talks (what weapons will be used, where and how to ambush the enemy, how to exploit enemy weaknesses, how to deal with their best general, and so on), peppering the dialogues with terms fans of naval battles will quickly memorize (turtle ships, crane wing formation, and so on) and espionage, with multiple spies coming out of the woodwork to deliver crucial information to the other side.
Fans of the first film will probably regret Choi Min-sik’s absence, as Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin is now portrayed by Park Hae-il. While the latter does his best and puts in the work, it’s hard not to think of Choi’s incredibly magnetic screen presence which elevated Roaring Currents to the highest cinematic levels. Park’s Yi Sun-shin is less immediately spellbinding and charismatic, even if the actor is never at fault. As a matter of fact, he seems more at ease on the deck of a ship giving out orders than in dimly lit rooms talking military strategy. The actor also starred in this year’s Decision to Leave from Park Chan-wook, in which he delivered a truly dizzying performance, full of nuance and emotions, which starkly contrasts with his solemn, almost cold portrayal of Yi Sun-shin. Therein lies what is perhaps Hansan’s greatest sin: as a prequel to a massively successful hero film, it never offers said hero the time to become a full-fledged human being, instead limiting him to qualities we already knew made him who he was (selflessness, courage, bold strategic thinking).
Perhaps then, it is for the better that the film chooses to focus so much on Japanese general Wakizaka. Portrayed by Byun Yo-han as a fierce, unrelenting enemy, he is never shown as weak or slow, but embodies the perfect adversary for Yi Sun-shin. Driven and ambitious, he shows courage too, but is eventually outwitted and blinded by his obsession for victory. While never compassionate, he is also not shown as a cruel monster, which is a refreshing change of pace for a Korean blockbuster with nationalistic sentiments.
If focus is a major strength of Hansan: Rising Dragon, it means it also gives too little weight to some details that would have benefited from extra development, mainly the war on land that is taking place concurrently to the naval battle, but only shown very briefly despite its importance in the story.
Most importantly, Hansan is a solemn film, asking the audience to watch it solemnly. Characters announce war plans over overbearing music, discussions are treated as world-changing events, and the narrative is entirely devoid of humour or cynicism, two ingredients we found in abundance in this year’s other period naval blockbuster from Korea: The Pirates: Last Royal Treasure, a fun action comedy that suffered from too many characters and a lack of narrative focus. Kim Han-min’s Hansan is superior in every aspect, and the naval battles benefit from a greater sense of framing and composition, making for a more spectacular (and narratively earned) finale. It is the first naval movie filmed entirely on land. The production team built full-scale warships that they used in indoor studio sets, all of the sea water being computer-generated. A bold, potentially dangerous move visually speaking, but director Kim’s team pulls it off superbly.
Aside from a few memorable scenes spread throughout the film’s runtime (the opening flashback, a dream sequence set in a snowy fortress, a nocturnal escape from a prison on fire), the finale constitutes most of the action in the film. Even once the final battle starts (before the 90-min mark of a 129-min movie!), strategy never goes out the window and remains the focus point of the proceedings. The much-admired and talked-about Turtle Ships (armoured ramming ships covered in spikes, equipped with a cannonball-spitting dragon head) take centre stage, delivering unexpected blows to the foreign ships in moments designed for collective catharsis in the theatre. Like all great cinematic battles, the Hansan Island battle is told in crystal-clear terms, with every military decision making perfect sense. It is divided into phases that gradually increase in intensity and, after a few twists and turns, culminates in one of the most satisfying aerial shots to ever come out of the Korean film industry – a “barrier on the sea”, the physical manifestation of an ideal of military strategy heralded by Yi Sun-shin. We appreciate the willingness to depict the birth of one of Korea’s most celebrated heroes through the images of war his intelligence made possible – a shame this approach is not backed by stronger emotional currents.
Contrary to Roaring Currents, Hansan is not an emotional affair, and unless the audience has a deep connection to Korean culture and history, they are unlikely to be swept up by the film’s stakes the same way they were in 2014. More clinically precise in its execution, this prequel puts the emphasis on the superiority of the mind and the strength of its unwavering bodies, be they made out of wood or flesh. Those who can appreciate tales of military heroism and naval battles will have a blast. Thankfully, we are among them, so we very much look forward to the final chapter of the trilogy Noryang: Deadly Sea, centred around the 1598 battle of Noryang, which has already been filmed.
Special thanks to Sarah Clinton from WellGo USA for making this review possible.