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 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

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)