Hansan: Rising Dragon

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hansan: Rising Dragon
"For the average viewer there are some awkward lags when nothing much is happening, but in the thick of the action, it’s exciting to watch." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

With improved technological flexibility and eager audiences supporting studio investment, there’s an ever-increasing number of impressive medieval battle films out there (and some good work on the small screen too), but one can still count the number of truly great naval equivalents on the fingers of one hand. Kim Han-min has already made a good effort, with 2014’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents, and here he attempts to pull off a similar feat, focusing on the Battle of Hansan Island, which preceded that story in that film and is widely considered to be a turning point in the Imjin war. Had it gone differently, Korea as we know it today might not exist – and yet it was fought in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

This is not a film made with much thought for international audiences, and you will get more out of it if you understand something of the context first. The Imjin War raged over eight years at the end of the 16th Century, but most of the actual fighting took place at either end of that. It began, ironically, with a man celebrated as a bringer of peace, the warrior emperor Hideyoshi, who united the warring shogunates of Japan, bringing that country’s bitter Sengoku period to an end. Sadly, like many such leaders, he found power harder to hold onto than it was to acquire, with his generals growing restless after Japan stabilised, so he conceived of a plan to conquer Ming China. Korea was simply caught in the middle. As China’s vassal state, it risked being crushed by its larger neighbour if it let Japanese troops march through its territory unhindered, so it refused to cooperate with Hideyoshi, and as a result, during just a few months in 1592, several of its major cities were seized and its government forced to flee north to Pyeongyang, leaving most of its high yield arable land in enemy hands.

Kim’s film begins at approximately this point, when Korea’s official strategy was still focused on defence – holing up in coastal fortresses to try to resist the might of the Japanese navy. Following the military decision-makers on either side, it sees Byun Yo-han take over from Cho Jin-woong as Japanese general Wakizaka, with Park Hae-il playing the younger Yi Sun-shin (formerly portrayed by Choi Min-sik), the only man whom Wakizaka considered to be a serious opponent. Each man is surrounded by others who are eager to share their own ideas, though the contention in the Japanese camp involves rather more violence. Men argue and threaten one another whilst elegantly garbed women sit on the sidelines, occasionally pouring tea, waiting to be of service. So little thought is given to their personhood that the men seem astounded when one of them turns out to be in league with a Korean spy.

On the Korean side, women might as well be non-existent, but there’s still a hint of (heterosexual) romance in the background for one character. Frankly, more of that sort of thing is needed, because seeing them only in a military context does not, in this case, give us everything we need to achieve understanding and sympathy with these various characters, at least in the absence of a sense of patriotic brotherhood. There are occasional character moments, such as when we see Yi Sun-shin focusing on the scholarly aspects of his job, which evidently fascinate him; or when an elderly admiral petitions him for one last chance at glory. For the most part, however, the film is rather dry, and viewers may struggle to keep track of who’s who. The logic of the conflict is reduced to invasion or repulsion, which is never as effective in engaging an audience as a personal motive or two.

In terms of the engagement between the two navies, the Japanese have the advantage of speed, whilst certain individual Korean vessels have greater strength. These are the turtle ships, geobukseon, heavily armoured and covered in spikes, used for rapid cannon fire and ramming. The trick lies in using them effectively, as they are few in number and vulnerable in certain situations. Part of the film concerns frantic efforts to redesign them and build new versions before the next engagement. The Japanese advance, meanwhile, is slowed by infighting (in reality this had more to do with the length of time required to assemble every admiral’s ships in one place, but Kim understandably needs to make some shortcuts, and this one serves as a reminder of the still fragile nature of Hideyoshi’s peace).

Though it begins with an action scene which shows viewers what Kim can do, the first hour and a half of the film is predominantly devoted to intrigue. The last 40 minutes deliver the battle which most viewers will have come to see. By then you should have a pretty good understanding of how the different vessels work, the formations they use and the territory through which they are manoeuvring. Again, the human angle is missing from the battle scenes – most of the dramatic deaths and bold sacrifices we see are not those of people we know – so the focus is on the ships themselves. Here, no expense has been spared, with splintering wood, half-submerged vessels, ramming, boarding, cannon fire, gunfire, the formidable use of arrows, and more. (Viewers should note that whilst the Koreans may seem more vulnerable because they use bows against Japanese guns, issues with accuracy meant that bows were the deadlier weapon at the time.) There are also some dramatic scenes involving sailing around rocks which must have posed real danger to shoot.

The film is generally very good on historical accuracy, at least where the ships, armour and weaponry is concerned. Everything moves faster than it should (both sides depending on oarsmen) but that’s a reasonable concession to keep viewers happy. If you have a specific interest in naval combat, you’ll find much to intrigue you. For the average viewer there are some awkward lags when nothing much is happening, but in the thick of the action, it’s exciting to watch.

Overall, this film, which screened at Fantasia 2022, feels more successful as an effort to record (a version of) history than to engage an audience, and the degree to which you find it satisfying is likely to depend a good deal on what you take into it. It doesn’t quite achieve greatness, but it shows a lot of potential, and with a tighter command of other aspects of storytelling, Kim could yet deliver something special.

Reviewed on: 29 Jul 2022
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The story of a critical sea battle between Koreans and invading Japanese forces in 1592.

Director: Kim Han-min

Starring: Park Hae-il, Byun Yo-Han, Ahn Sung-Ki

Year: 2022

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

Fantasia 2022

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