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

Youngju (영주, Cha Sung-duk, 2018)

Youngju poster 1In the midst of a changing society, the Korean family has come increasingly under the microscope. Where festival favourite Last Child took a pair of grieving parents and saw them unwittingly bond with the boy involved with their own son’s death, Cha Sung-duk’s sensitive indie debut Youngju (영주) finds an orphaned young woman turning to the man who caused the accident which killed her parents in search of some kind of reparation but unexpectedly discovering him to be good and kind if carrying his own burden. Yearning for the warmth of family, she wonders if it would be alright to leave the past behind and embrace this new chance of togetherness, but the truth will out and once known may make her bright new future an impossibility.

19-year-old Youngju (Kim Hyang-gi) lost her parents five years ago and, despite being a minor under Korean law, is the legal guardian for her 15-year-old brother Youngin (Tang Joon-sang). She’s given up her schooling to do a host of part-time jobs in order to support the pair of them while hoping to save for Youngin’s college education, but she’s also being hounded by a domineering aunt who keeps trying to sell the family home out from under her more it seems out of a sense of greed and entitlement than concern for the kids’ wellbeing. Alternating between telling Youngju she needs to take more responsibility and shutting her down by instructing her to “leave these things up to the adults” the aunt is a problematic presence in the kids’ lives leaving them technically not without family but deprived of the support that Korean society expects a family to provide. On a car ride home, Youngju’s aunt tells her to give up and think of her as a mother, only for Youngju to snap back that she’s no longer a child and has no need of a one. The aunt’s “have it your own way” attitude implies she’s made the right decision, but young as she is Youngju can’t know that it doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone still needs a mother at one time or another.

She begins to find one in an unexpected place after hitting rock bottom when Youngin falls in with a bad crowd and gets himself into trouble. As he’s underage, the matter can be settled with a fine, but the kids don’t have that kind of money and Youngju’s attempts to get it lead only to humiliation and betrayal. Resentful of her circumstances, she decides to track down the truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel and caused the traffic accident that killed her parents, hoping to take some kind of revenge by somehow making him pay. Once there she ends up getting a job in their family-run tofu shop where the man’s wife, Hyang-sook (Kim Ho-jung), takes to her immediately with maternal warmth even jokingly referring to her as her younger daughter with a regular customer while delighting in cooking up extra meals for to take home and share with her “family”.

Of course, what Hyang-sook doesn’t know is that Youngju has no family other than Youngin who is trapped in youth detention until she can get the money to get him out. Though the relationship between the siblings is understandably close because they have no one else, it’s also fraught with difficulty and confusion, Youngin feeling guilty and resentful of his older sister’s sacrifices on his behalf, wondering if she’s ashamed of him for not being more help and for constantly getting into trouble. Youngju, meanwhile, keeps her new work family a secret, merely telling her brother that she got the money she needed from her boss rather than their horrible aunt, replying to his question about why anyone would lend them money out of the goodness of their hearts with only “they’re good people”.

The Kims are indeed “good people”, despite whatever preconceptions Youngju might have had about them. Hyang-sook is good and kind, practicing true Christian values of love and forgiveness. Realising that Youngju meant to steal from them, she simply gives her the money because she can see that she’s a “good kid” and seems to be in some kind of desperate difficulty with which she’d like to help her. Hyang-sook takes the melancholy young woman to her heart like a daughter, but Youngju remains uncertain that her forgiveness could extend to the extent of her lies if she knew the real reason she arrived in their lives. Increasingly guilty, she finds herself feeling that she needs to tell the truth but knowing that if she does the fragile sense of family she’s found with the Kims may be irreparably broken. 

Under the Kims’ influence, Youngju encourages her brother that he too needs to try to be better, that they should try “live a better life”, but he understandably feels betrayed by her desire to look for family somewhere else, rejecting their parents’ memory and siding with the architect of all their misfortune. Having made peace with her own tragedy, Hyang-sook may say there’s no point blaming anyone but obviously feels a deep-seated sense of vicarious guilt that for all her pity may make it impossible for Youngju to return to that same level of intimacy as daughter unconditionally loved and supported by kind and forgiving people. In the opening scene, Youngju jokingly asked her brother which of their parents he’d most like to bring back and picked her dad because he was going to take them to a theme park, but it’s grief for her mother(s) that finally overwhelms her, convincing her perhaps that now she really is alone. Even so, the sun rises again and we get the impression that Youngju will be alright in the end, walking sorrowfully off towards a “better life” but perhaps resolved to doing so with no one by her side.


Youngju was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Innocent Witness (증인, Lee Han, 2019)

Innocent Witness poster“Are you a good person?” asks the confused girl at the centre of Lee Han’s Innocent Witness (증인, Jeungin). Her question comes after a series of surprising revelations which have left her questioning all of her relationships and the nature of the world itself, yet it’s one that’s largely impossible to answer. Formerly idealistic lawyer Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung) thinks he’s been given the kind of case he can get behind, but as usual nothing is quite as it seems and if he wants to get to the truth of the matter he’ll have to learn to think differently.

Soon-ho began his career as an activist lawyer working for NGOs, but now he’s “sold out” to join an elite law firm with a dodgy reputation in order to pay back debts his father unwisely guaranteed for a friend. Because of his precarious financial status, Soon-ho has put-off marriage and relationships, despite his father’s nagging, believing them to be out of his reach and is conflicted by his recent career choices which leave him on the opposite side from old friends. When he’s handed a pro-bono case to defend a housekeeper (Yum Hye-ran) accused of murdering her employer he thinks it’s the best of both worlds. All the evidence points to suicide, but there’s a witness testimony which suggests otherwise. Seeing as the testimony is from a 15-year-old autistic girl who witnessed the crime from across the street, Soon-ho feels he can easily have it discounted.

Like many in the film, Soon-ho doesn’t know much about autism and writes Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi) off as “mentally impaired”, believing that will be enough for the jury to disregard her testimony especially as it so strongly conflicts with the rest of the evidence. Refused permission to meet with her in person, Soon-ho begins trying to befriend Ji-woo on the way home from school and eventually comes to realise that she is highly intelligent if easily distracted and uneasy in social situations. What he discovers is not that Ji-woo is unable to communicate with the world, but that the world is unwilling to communicate with her. If he wants to bond, he will need to learn her language and earn her trust.

Trust maybe he hard to come by as he witnesses the minor aggressions she goes through every day like the horrible boys at school who taunt her mercilessly and the supposed friend bullying her in secret, not to mention a world full of barking dogs and ringing telephones. When he finally puts her on the stand, his own co-defence chair reads out passages from a book about autism which describe it as a “mental disability” before painting her as a deranged idiot who probably half-imagined what she saw from things she’d seen on television – an act which has profound ethical implications in eroding Ji-woo’s sense of self. Ji-woo told Soon-ho she wanted to be a lawyer because lawyers are good people who help those in need, but Soon-ho has to ask himself whose interest destroying a 15-year-old girl on the stand is really serving.

The law firm Soon-ho joined does seem to be a sleazy one. Despite hiring him to improve their image, Soon-ho’s boss tells him that his new clients won’t be comfortable with him unless he gets himself a little “dirty” while inviting him to awkward parties with call girls in high class hotels. Meanwhile, Soon-ho remains conflicted – especially after potentially losing a 20-year friendship through saying the wrong thing to a still idealistic lawyer and passing it off as an attempt to be “realistic”. Realism is one thing, but Soon-ho seems to have given up and decided if you can’t beat them join them. His dad, sensing his son’s unease, writes him an impassioned letter in which he tells him that the most important thing in life is to be happy with yourself, everything else you can figure out later.

Realising his mistake, Soon-ho begins to see the light. Through bonding with Ji-woo, he learns that seeing things differently can be advantage and that society should have a place for everyone where they shouldn’t have to worry about being themselves. Tellingly, no one ever bothered to ask Ji-woo about the most important part of evidence in her testimony because they all had too many prejudices about her delivery. Only Soon-ho, having bothered to get to know her, was able see what it was that she wan’t saying. The film perhaps missteps when it has Ji-woo come to the conclusion that she can’t be a lawyer because of her autism, but otherwise presents a sensitive portrayal of a society trying to be better in accommodating difference and doing it with empathetic positivity while subtly waving a finger at the self-serving forces of conservative corruption.


Innocent Witness was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연,Kim Yong-hwa, 2018)

Along with the gods 2 posterKarma is a bitch, and Korean hell is apparently full of it. You don’t have to be guilty to work here, but it certainly seems to help. Picking up straight after the conclusion of the first film, Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods sequel, The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, Singwa Hamgge: Ingwa Yeon) sees stern grim reaper/celestial defence lawyer Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) make good on his promise to clear the name of a once vengeful spirit now cheerfully deceased, but willingly or otherwise it’s himself he’s putting on trial as the facts of his client’s case veer eerily close to his own. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) is up to his old tricks once again.

Brother of the first film’s “paragon” Ja-hong, Kim Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) is headed nowhere good – after being accidentally shot by one friend and then buried alive by another to cover it up, Su-hong became a vengeful spirit creating havoc in the mortal and underworlds. Gang-lim, however, is convinced that Su-hong’s death was “wrongful”, that he died as a deliberate act of murder rather than simply by a tragic accident, and commits himself to clearing Su-hong’s name so that he can be reincarnated immediately. He manages to win King Yeomra over, but there is one condition – an old man, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo), is an overstayer in the mortal world and should have been “ascended” long ago but his household god, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok), keeps despatching the Guardians to keep the old man safe. If Gang-lim and his assistants Hewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) can clear Su-hong’s name and ascend Choon-sam within 49 Days King Yeomra will at last set them free and allow them to be reincarnated.

Having dealt so thoroughly with the mechanics of hell in The Two Worlds, Kim expands and deepens his canvas to delve into the lives of our various Guardians. As it turns out Sung-ju was once a Guardian himself and so he knows a thing or two about our two underlings – Hewonmak and Deok-choon, whose memories were wiped when they became employees of King Yeomra. As Sung-ju spins a yarn, it becomes clear that the fates of the three Guardians were closely linked in life and death, bound by a series of traumatic events over a thousand years ago during the Goryeo dynasty.

As in the Two Worlds it all comes down to family. Gang-lim’s memories are fractured and confused, he’s convinced himself he’s a righteous man and wilfully misremembered his death (or at least misrepresented it to his cohorts). Stiff and lacking in compassion, Gang-lim was at odds with his gentle hearted father who, he thought, had found a better son in a boy orphaned by the cruelty of his own troops. These broken familial connections become a karmic circle of resentment and betrayal, enduring across millennia in the knowledge that even to ask for forgiveness may itself be another cruel and selfish act of violence. The circle cannot be closed without cosmic justice, but justice requires process and process requires a victim.

Gang-lim plays a bait and switch, he walks the strangely cheerful Su-hong through the various trials but it’s himself he’s testing, working towards a resolution of his own centuries old burdens of guilt and regret. There are, however, unintended victims in everything and the fate of orphans becomes a persistent theme from the orphaned foster brother Gang-lim feared so much, to those who lost their families in the wars of Goryeo, and a little boy who will be left all alone if Hewonmak and Deok-choon decide to ascend Choon-sam. Choon-sam’s adorable grandson is only young but he’s already been badly let down – his mother sadly passed away, but his father ran up gambling debts and then ran off to the Philippines never to be seen again. He didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s no cosmic justice waiting for him, only “uncle” Sang-ju who has taken the bold step of assuming human form to help the boy and his granddad out while trying to come up with a more permanent solution.

Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness eventually triumph over the rigid business of the law, finally closing the circle through force of will. Kim doubles down on The Two Worlds’ carefully crafted aesthetic but perhaps indulges himself with a series of random digressions involving psychic dinosaur attacks and lengthy laments about stock market fluctuations and failing investments. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days may lack the narrative focus of its predecessor but is undoubtedly lighter in tone and filled with the sense of fun the first film lacked, which is just as well because it seems as if hell is not done with our three Guardians just yet.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Kim Yong-hwa, 2017)

Along With the Gods- The Two Worlds posterThere’s nothing like death to give life perspective. If life is a series of tests, death is the finals but if you pass you get to come back and do it all again, otherwise you’ll have to spend some time in the afterlife thinking hard about what you’ve done and presumably studying for some kind of resits. At least, that’s how it seems to work in the complicated Buddhist hell of Kim Yong-hwa’s fantasy epic Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (신과함께-죄와 벌, Sin gwa Hamkke – Joe wa Beol). The first in a two part series, The Two Worlds takes a saintly man and tries to pull him down only to build him back up again as a potent symbol of filial piety and wounded selflessness.

Firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun) is killed leaping heroically from a burning building with a little girl wrapped in his arms. He doesn’t realise he’s dead until he’s greeted by two neatly suited, official looking types who explain to him that they are his “Guardians” and will be looking after him on his journey through the afterlife. It turns out that Ja-hong’s heroic death has earned him a “Paragon” badge – a rare occurrence, and he has a good chance of reincarnation before the 49th day if he can successfully pass each of the seven trials which mark passage through Buddhist Hell.

As the Guardians point out, it would be extremely difficult for a “normal” person to pass these seven trials and achieve reincarnation but as a Paragon Ja-hong should have an easier ride. Ja-hong is, however, an ordinary person with an ordinary person’s failings even if his faults are comparatively small. Ja-hong is literally on trial seven times – represented by his team of defence lawyers, the Guardians, he is charged with various sins each “judged” by a god presiding over a custom courtroom. Murder Hell is fiery chaos, indolence is assessed by a stern older lady (Kim Hae-sook), and deceit by (who else) a small child (Kim Soo-ahn) licking a large lollipop.

Ja-hong is indeed a “good person” but he has also been to dark places, wilfully deciding to turn and walk away from them in order to repurpose his rage and resentment into a determination to care for his seriously ill mother (Ye Soo-jung) and younger brother (Kim Dong-wook). Working tirelessly, Ja-hong has been selfless in the extreme, saving lives and saving money for his family whilst sacrificing his own life and prospect of happiness in order to provide for others. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a degree of “sin” in the selfishness of Ja-hong’s selflessness or that he hasn’t also been cowardly in making a symbolic recompense for a guilty secret rather than a personal apology.

Kim Yong-hwa weaves in a series of subplots including a lengthy shift into the life of Ja-hong’s brother Su-hong, a possibly gay soldier with an intense attachment to a comrade which eventually has tragic results. Su-hong’s mild resentment towards his brother becomes a key element in his trial, eventually developing into a more literal kind of spectre haunting the proceedings while perhaps creating even more turmoil and confusion in the living world thanks to a moustache twirling villain whose desire to “help” is probably more about saving face – the kind of “betrayal” which is not “beautiful” enough to get a pass from the Goddess.

In the end the court seems to bend towards Ja-hong’s moral philosophy, excusing his human failings through moral justification even when that justification remains flimsy as in the case of his “fake” letters intended to make people feel better through the comfort of lies. The essence of the judgement, however, looks for forgiveness – if a sin is forgiven in the mortal world, it is inadmissible in a celestial court. The message seems clear, face your problems head on and sort out your emotional difficulties properly while there’s time else you’ll end up with “unfinished business” and get bogged down in Buddhist Hell being attacked by fish with teeth and having old ladies asking you why you spent so much time watching movies about death rather than living life to the fullest.

Ambitious in its use of CGI, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds acquits itself well enough in its carefully drawn (if lifeless) backgrounds and frequent flights of fancy which allow Ha Jung-woo’s enigmatic Gang-lim ample opportunity to whip out his fiery sword of justice. Narratively, however, it’s comparatively clumsy and content to revel in the melodrama of its tearjerking premise. A post-credits teaser linking part one and part two through the recurring figure of an old man who can see the Guardians presents a familiar face in an extremely unfamiliar light and hints at a great deal of fun to be had next time around – appropriate enough for a film about reincarnation, but then again it’s as well to have some fun in this life too, something The Two Worlds could have used a little more of.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)