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

Black Money (블랙머니, Chung Ji-young, 2019)

Following hot on the heels of Default, Chung Ji-young’s financial thriller Black Money (블랙머니) once again has some questions to ask about the nature of capitalism in South Korea. Loosely based on a real life incident concerning the sale of the Korea Exchange Bank (KEB) to American private equity firm Lone Star Funds, Chung’s film points the finger at systematised corruption as its collection of greedy financial elites peddle national interest as a reason for keeping the public in the dark when it comes to their dodgy dealings.

The trouble starts in 2011 when an illicit couple, one working for Daehan bank and the other for the Financial Supervisory Service, are bumped off after being called in by the Supreme Prosectors’ Office in connection with an ongoing corruption investigation into the sale of the bank at rock bottom prices. The male bank employee is killed when the couple is run off the road by a truck but the FSS woman, Su-gyeong (Lee Na-ra), manages to escape. Fully aware that her life is at threat, she tries to get herself arrested by the police for protection but fails and is later discovered dead in her car next to a charcoal briquette. A “suicide note” in the form of a text message to her sister suggests that she has chosen to take her own life because of the aggressive tactics of prosecutors one of whom sexually harassed her after which she felt too humiliated to go on living. 

The mention of sexual harassment is intended to act as a tiny bomb by the shady forces in play, fully aware that just mentioning those words makes the entire case toxic ensuring it will be shut down never to be mentioned again. They have, however, picked the wrong man for their patsy in “bulldozer” Yang Min-hyuk (Cho Jin-woong) who is outraged to have been unfairly labelled a sex offender and will stop at nothing to clear his name, eventually uncovering the entire conspiracy after realising that Su-gyeong’s death was almost certainly a murder.

In this, Yang is obviously acting in self interest, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t care about the conspiracy, but it’s not his primary motivation. His opposing number, Kim Na-ri (Lee Honey), is perhaps much the same, a victim of her upbringing but increasingly conflicted. Brought up by a right-wing, ultra-capitalist professor who is good friends with former prime minister Lee Gwang-ju (Lee Kyoung-young) now working on the Daehan bank sale, Na-ri tells herself she’s acting in the national interest in her desire to set up her own international trade law firm to prevent Korea being taken advantage of by bigger foreign economic powers and in particular the Americans. Despite her law background, what Na-ri has mainly found herself doing is more like PR, finding palatable ways forward to make sure the deal goes through on favourable terms despite the already widespread public outcry.

Surprisingly, Na-ri and Yang end up bonding over the course of the investigation, discovering they have more in common than either might have assumed. Given the kind of evidence that Yang is digging up which points to a wide scale conspiracy involving complex fraud and murder, Na-ri finds herself conflicted. Maybe she isn’t quite as committed to ultra-capitalism as her father is, giving Lee’s speech at the Davos conference the heart-warming title of “free trade with a human face” which apparently went down very well with the audience. Whatever else she is, she’s a lawyer, and the kind of lawyer who doesn’t really like it when people break the law, so she’d rather not think that she’s been party to criminality without ever realising. Lee, meanwhile, uses their familial closeness against her, adopting a sleazy kind of sexist paternalism as he brushes off her concerns as if telling her not to worry her pretty little head about it while tacitly admitting what he’s up to isn’t quite right but is justifiable because the economy must be protected at all costs. 

Only, that’s a difficult claim to square when Na-ri’s restructuring plans for Daehan involve hundreds of workers being laid off and some of them are currently on a hunger strike in the public square to protest. Na-ri is used to thinking in big numbers, she’s not usually confronted by the human face of their results and the weight of her responsibility does perhaps shake her. Yang too is used to being equivocal, declaring himself a neutral force because his job is to enforce the law equally, but he got into this after his dad was involved in a traffic accident where the other driver turned out to be a chaebol kid, so he knows all about systemic inequality and entrenched corruption. Nevertheless, self interest continues to play its part. The sympathetic chief prosecutor who put his career on the line to take the case forward is ousted through a trumped up charge while his replacement offers to shelve it in return for a promotion. A combination of bribery and violence conspires to keep the financial elites doing what they’re doing because no one is secure enough to stop them. 

Trying to discourage her from her newfound sense of responsibility, Na-ri’s father reminds her that Lee is like family to them, which is one reason he’s put her forward for a top job as a financial commissioner, explaining that “that’s how we live through capitalism. Just accept it. It’s not something you can change on your own”. Chung ends the film with a sense of triumph as the common man, Yang, makes an impassioned speech in front of an angry mob, but according to the on screen text his was an empty victory because no one was ever brought to justice over the “illegal” bank sale which put a lot of ordinary citizens out of work while already wealthy elites lined their pockets aided by the financial authorities and a rotten judiciary. An attack on rampant capitalism, Black Money is not afraid to announce where its allegiances lie but seemingly has few answers other than indignation towards an inherently corrupt society ruled by greed and indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people.


Original trailer (no subtitles)