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

Steel Rain (강철비, Yang Woo-suk, 2017)

Steel Rain posterA little way in to Steel Rain (강철비, Gangchulbi), one of its heroes – a Blue House official, gives a pointed lecture on Korea’s past to some students of Geopolitical History. Fiercely critical of Korea’s previous subjugation by Japan, he laments that his nation was not able to free itself from the Japanese yoke and was awarded its freedom with the end of a wider political conflict which saw the Japanese “empire” collapse. According to Kwak Cheol-u, Korea has never quite lost its cultural admiration for its former colonisers which is why its most prominent corporations – Samsung, Haeundae etc, are all direct competitors with similar Japanese firms (and are only now pushing past them in terms of global market penetration and technological innovation).

Switching tack, he wonders why it is that Japan lost a war and Korea got cut in two by two new “colonising” forces. In his oft observed mantra, Kwak (Kwak Do-won) insists that the citizens of a divided nation suffer more from those who seek to manipulate the division for their own ends than they do from the division itself, which is where we find ourselves in the contemporary era of my button’s bigger than his button in which “capitalist pig dogs” face off against “dirty commies”. Adapting his own webcomic, Yang’s action thriller is among the most recent in a long line of North/South buddy movies and even if its cold-war paranoia feels distinctly old hat, it just goes to prove that everything old is new again.

Eom Cheol-u (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean special forces agent, is called back into the fold by his old commander for a very special mission. Tensions are about to boil over in the perpetually precarious state and the Dear Leader’s life is under threat from a suspected coup. Eom is to silence one of the conspirators in return for which he will be given elite status and his family will be well looked after. Unfortunately, the mission does not go to plan and Eom ends up witnessing a missile strike on a welcome meeting at a Chinese managed factory in which the (mostly young and female) employees are murdered in cold blood. Managing to escape with the Dear Leader himself who is seriously wounded, Eom travels over the border along with two young girls. From this point on he’s in conspiracy thriller territory trying to work out just what’s going on and who he can really trust.

The symbolism is rammed home by the fact that our two heroes, Kwak and Eom, have the same first name – Cheol-u, only one uses the characters for “strong friendship” and the other “bright world”. Taken together they paint a pretty picture, brothers in arms despite the political difficulties which place them on differing sides of an arbitrary line drawn up by a foreign power without much consideration for those divided by it. As in many North/South buddy movies of recent times, the North Korean agent displays the best qualities of his nation in his essential “goodness” – a caring husband and father, he executes his mission with maximum efficiency but bears no ill will towards those outside of it and is keen to protect the people of North Korea from almost certain doom should a nuclear war break out between the two peoples. Kwak, by contrast, is more of a schemer whose moral universe is much less black and white. A fluent Mandarin speaker he’s in tight with a North Korean official who keeps trying to talk him into taking a research post at a Chinese university while his family life is somewhat complicated thanks to a divorce from his plastic surgeon wife.

Meanwhile, the film is at pains to point out that Korea became the focus point of the first East/West proxy war and, in Kwak’s view at least, remains insufficiently important in the eyes of its “allies” to merit much direct consideration. Thus our boardroom squabbles are often reduced to the looming face of the American President “advising” the Korean officials on the best course of action while others worry about what Japan is going to think and wonder if the US secretly values the opinion of the Japanese more than the Koreans on the ground. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the government is in a transitionary phase in which a new president has been elected but not sworn in. The crisis may well play out entirely within the old president’s final hours which means that diplomatically he has little to lose and as he is a conservative, might as well milk the situation for all it’s worth. In short, he’s as keen to ruffle diplomatic feathers and bring the situation to a head as everyone else is and war looks more likely than not. The central message is that, as Kwak is fond of implying, governments care little for their people or that millions may die when idea of division is so easily manipulated, especially if it’s not “their” people who will be doing the dying.

Not for nothing is the new president seen reading copy of Willy Brandt’s book on successful reunification, even if he begs his outgoing predecessor to consider the economic impact of any possible change in relations with a Northern neighbour. The North Korean official also warns that China is not keen on the idea of a war seeing as that will necessarily mean an influx of North Korean refugees no one wants to take responsibility for. The cold war may be about to turn hot, but the heroics that cool it down turn out to be of a much less gung-ho nature than might be expected, relying on personal sacrifice and a perhaps outdated code of honour. Nevertheless, the crisis is averted not through macho posturing but through “diplomatic channels” and a careful balancing of powers. Perhaps not so farfetched after all.


Streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Steel Rain will also receive its international festival premiere as the opening night gala of the Udine Far East Film Festival on 20th April.

Far East Film Festival trailer (no subtitles)