Hansan: Rising Dragon (한산: 용의 출현, Kim Han-min, 2022)

“A battle of the righteous against the unrighteous” is how Admiral Yi (Park Hae-il) frames his resistance against the Japanese invasion, not a war between nations but an attempt to push back against the authoritarian ruthlessness of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s desire to conquer most of Asia in a bid to cement his historical legacy as his health continued to fail. Hansan: Rising Dragon (한산: 용의 출현, Hansan: Yongui Chulhyeon) is a kind of prequel to 2014’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents set five years earlier during Hideyoshi’s first campaign and pits the the wise and steadfast Admiral Yi against ambitious yet overconfident Japanese general Wakizaka* (Byun Yo-han). 

Wakizaka’s ruthless cruelty is not in dispute even as the film opens with him dispatching a report stating that he intends to destroy the Korean naval detachment harboured on the southern coast which it seems is all that stands between him and conquest of the peninsula in its capacity to disrupt his supply line. When some of his men return in defeat talking about a “Bokkaisen” with a dragon’s head spouting fire, Wakizaka orders them killed to stop them spreading rumours of supernatural threat among the troops. Retrieving what looks to be a dragon’s tooth from the ruined vessel he begins to realise there might be something their story but still doesn’t take the threat of Admiral Yi’s fleet very seriously. 


Admiral Yi meanwhile, who was wounded in the same battle pitching his bow and arrow against a Japanese rifleman, is plagued by dreams and anxiety while trying to sort out a strategy for dealing with the Japanese invasion. Some of his fellow officers think offence is the best defence and they should try to strike before Wakizaka is able to amass his forces, while others think they should play it safe and continue to defend the coast. He and his chief engineer are working on improvements to their turtle boat which had so spooked the Japanese soldiers at the previous battle but at the same time had its limitations. They don’t call it a turtle boat for nothing, on ramming into the Japanese vessel its dragonhead became lodged in the side locking the two boats in a deathly embrace. Yi suggests removing it, but as it turns out the ability to latch on to the enemy like a snapping turtle can also be an advantage if you know how to use it while figuring out how to get the best out of limited resources, along with managing interpersonal relations, turns out to be Wakizaka’s weakness. 

Ever ambitious, Wakizaka is distracted by petty rivalry with his co-general who disagrees with his strategies and eventually betrays him. A Korean-speaking Japanese retainer sent as a spy later decides to defect precisely because of this ruthless disregard for the lives of one’s fellow soldiers, struck by Yi’s personal presence on the battlefield and willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect his men. Though he is originally viewed with suspicion by some, Junsa (Kim Sung-kyu) is embraced as a fellow soldier after joining the defence forces at an inland fortress and told that all that is necessary is that he have a “shared righteous spirit” fighting together against the “unrighteous” Japanese invasion. 

In any case, neither Wakizaka or the Japanese care very much about Korea all they’re doing is clearing a path to China. Meanwhile, the nervous king continues to travel North leaving his generals fearful he will defect to the Ming and they will end up losing their sovereignty to China if not to Japan. Wakizaka’s strategy is somewhat hubristic, leaving himself vulnerable in the rear as he pushes forward while using land tactics to fight a war at sea and thereby allowing Yi to set a trap for him perfectly tailored to his vain complacency. Wakizaka may have the numbers, but Yi has superior technology and the respect of his men. Quite fittingly the real Wakizaka was marooned on an island after the battle and had to survive on seaweed while waiting for his chance to escape. With plenty of spy action, double crossings and betrayals, Kim Han-min saves the big guns for the final naval battle which begins in ominous fog before exploding in all out war but still makes clear that the battle is on the side of righteousness and that Yi owes his victory to human solidarity and compassion (leaving aside his torture of suspected spies) and Wakizaka his defeat to hubris and cruelty. 


Hansan: Rising Dragon screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and is in US cinemas now courtesy of Well Go USA.

*these subtitles use Wakizaka but his name is sometimes also romanised as Wakisaka.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

On the Line (보이스, Kim Gok & Kim Sun, 2021)

“Voice phishing is all about empathy” according to the sociopathic villain at the centre of Kim Gok & Kim Sun’s crime thriller On the Line (보이스, Voice), ironically hinting at his heartless greed leveraging as he admits people’s fear and hope against them and actively revelling in their misery. The Korean title, Voice, hints at the nebulous quality of the scam that in the end a reassuring voice is all people fall for but at the same time there is indeed a lot on the line not least for the embattled hero fighting back against the corruptions of contemporary capitalism.

Former policeman Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is currently working a job in construction after being forced out of the police when one of his investigations implicated the son of a prominent person. Finally starting to get back on his feet, he’s offered a big promotion by his supportive boss and is about to buy a house with his wife Miyeon (Won Jin-A) but then everything starts to go wrong. A potential accident threatens Seo-joon’s new sense of success while unbeknownst to him, Miyeon is currently on the phone with a man claiming to be a lawyer friend of his who tells her that he’s been arrested because of a fatality on site but if she sends the lawyer money for a “settlement” Seo-joon will be released with no further consequences. Unable to get in touch with her husband and fooled by number spoofing when she tries to call the site, Miyeon takes out the money intended to pay the deposit on the house and hands it over only realising her mistake when the scammers turn off the jammers they’d hidden at the construction site and Seo-joon rings her back to find out what’s wrong. So shocked is she that gets hit by a car and is in hospital in a coma when Seo-joon learns that his boss got scammed too and has taken his own life in shame in having lost so much money meant for his employees. 

As the open intertitles relate, voice phishing telephone fraud is a rising problem which aside from landing its victims in inescapable debt can ruin lives and relationships not to mention cause intense feelings of humiliation which lead those affected to consider harming themselves. Using vast data sets often fraudulently obtained, the scammers are able to perfectly profile their victims who as the villainous Gwak (Kim Mu-yeol) points out are already living in the “hell” of the contemporary society amid employment and financial crises that leave them feeling desperate enough for help that they don’t ask too many questions of a friendly voice on the phone. The workers at the vast call centre in China operated by gangster Cheon (Park Myung-hoon) are all Korean and many of them pressed by debts some of them even scam victims themselves so damaged by the internecine assault of contemporary capitalism as to have given in and agreed to ruin others just as they have already been ruined.

Seo-joon’s primary goal is to get his money back with a little revenge on the side as he takes the police to task and then leads them by the nose to the gang’s base in China, all that time in construction standing him in good stead as he climbs through lift shafts and ventilation ducts trying to expose the scammers and bring them to justice. The police force is first seen to be hamstrung by the high-tech nature of the case while their hands are tied because the gang is operating out of a foreign sovereign nation but are then kicked into gear by super cop Seo-joon who ironically can act with less restraint for no longer being an official law enforcement officer. 

Even so, it becomes clear this kind of crime isn’t going away even if this particular gang is taken down because the most valuable commodity in the world of today is personal data and there’s more and more of that available with every passing second. There is indeed a lot on the line not least the nature of the contemporary society dragged ever further into a spiralling race to the bottom, the effects of an exploitative social system from the abuse of migrant workers to the anxiety of high unemployment rates and poor working conditions simply more tools to be manipulated by scammers promising a helping hand with a reassuring voice on the phone telling you they have the solution to all your problems but this too involves a small fee, just a tiny investment in your future you’d be foolish not to make. A timely condemnation of the amoral venality of contemporary capitalism, Kim & Kim’s steely thriller sends its hero on a quest for justice both personal and societal while pursuing the duplicitous voices all the way to the end of the line. 


On the Line screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 22 & 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Pension (더 펜션, Ryu Jang-ha, Yang Jong-hyun, Yoon Chang-mo, Jung Heo Deok-jae, 2018)

The Pension poster“We’re all lonely beings” the proprietor of a small mountain lodge advances hoping to comfort a distressed guest. The temporary denizens of The Pension (더 펜션), a four part omnibus set in a charmingly old-fashioned forest hideaway, are indeed mostly lonely beings making use of this liminal place to process the taboo away from the prying eyes of civilisation, embracing the savagery of the natural world as they cast off conventional morality to pursue their illicit desires be they vengeful, violent, protective or loving.

We begin with darkness as our first pair of guests, a man, Choo-ho (Jo Han-chul), and his wife Mi-kyung (Park Hyo-joo), seem to be all too interested in the family next door. Eventually we discover that the couple have come with ill intentions and revenge on their mind, though the man they’re after doesn’t seem so bad to begin with – he asks them to dinner with his wife and son who seem happy, but the atmosphere grows tenser as he begins to drink and a darkness creeps in. Before long Mi-kyung has set her mind on poetic justice, leaving the other couple’s young son in peril while Choo-ho struggles with his desire to stop his wife making a terrible mistake while not wanting to upset her.

Unhappy families continue to be theme with the second pair of guests – a married couple hoping to rekindle their listless romance in the peace and tranquillity of the remote mountain lodge. While the arrival is pleasant enough, perhaps too much so as the husband (Park Hyuk-kwon) puts on a show of making the effort, despair creeps in when he realises he’d made sure to bring his wife’s (Lee Young-jin) favourite coffee but forgotten the grinder. He wants her all to himself, but she just wants to go home and worries about their young daughter staying with a mother-in-law she doesn’t seem to like very much. Eventually the couple decide they need some time apart and she ends up meeting someone else (Kim Tae-hoon) in the woods to whom she recounts all the loneliness and isolation she experiences in her married life, seemingly trapped by conventionality but unconvinced that anything would be very different if she left.

The hotel owner (Jo Jae-yoon) might agree with her – a lonely soul he is too, though it appears he opened this hotel for just that reason, burying himself away from his heartache by coming to live alone with the transient presence of strangers and peaceful isolation of the woods. His mother, however, is not convinced and is constantly nagging him to get married – in fact, she’s set up a meeting for the following day meaning he’ll have to close the shop. That might be a problem, because he gets a surprise guest in the middle of the night, a distressed woman (Shin So-yul) intent on staying in a very particular room. Finding it odd, he can hardly turn her away with nowhere else to go but a TV programme on the causes of suicide (loneliness, the decline of the traditional family, economic pressures etc) convinces him he ought to check on her. Assuming she is merely lovelorn (as is he), he tries to comfort her with platitudes but pulls away from her emotional need only to find himself eventually wounded only in a much more physical way as he idly fantasises what it might have been like if he’d gone back to her room and been a bit more sympathetic.

Our proprietor is notably absent in the final segment, replaced by a much younger man (Lee Yi-kyung) with much more urgent desires. Despite being there to do a job, the boy has brought his girlfriend whom he alienates by failing to explain a mysterious text from another girl all while making eyes at the attractive young woman (Hwang Sun-hee) staying next door who claims to be “from the future”. When another guest turns up and starts making a fuss about a missing engagement ring she supposedly left behind, everything becomes much more complicated than it seems but one thing is certain – there is precious little love to be found in this hotel where everyone has come to embrace the side of themselves the city does not allow to breathe.

Much more cynical and obviously comedic than the preceding three tales, the final chapter perhaps bears out the message that it’s not so much rest and relaxation people have come to The Pension for, but “privacy” or to be more exact “discretion”. Some came for love, others for lack of it, but all of them are looking for something they are unlikely to find here though the first couple could perhaps have found it if only they had stuck together. Nevertheless, hotels are transient places for a reason – take what you need from your stay and leave the rest behind.


The Pension screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 16, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)