Eight years have passed between Kim Han-min’s record-breaking period naval war film The Admiral: Roaring Currents and his prequel, Hansan: Rising Dragon, which opens at the AMC Grapevine Mills this weekend. It’s the second film in a planned trilogy, with the third installment scheduled for release next year. What it proves is that this Korean director has a gift for staging battles at sea that’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Set in 1592, five years before the events of The Admiral, this movie depicts the Battle of Hansan Island, where this time it’s the Japanese who hold the geographical advantage. The invaders have taken over the Korean peninsula all the way up to Hanyang — Seoul, to you and me — and the king of Joseon has escaped north amid rumors that he’ll flee to China, which would signal to his people that he’s given up the fight. Under the command of Wakizaka Yasuharu (Byun Yo-han), a fleet of 140 ships makes for the southern city of Yeosu to crush Joseon’s navy headed by Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Park Hae-il, taking over the role from Choi Min-sik). When Joseon’s fleet of 55 ships sets out to meet them, the Japanese lie in wait in Gyonnaeryang Strait. Yi’s battle plan relies on drawing the superior force into open water, so the two commanders engage in a staring contest. Who blinks first?
The Admiral denied us the chance to see the Korean “turtle ships” in action, because they weren’t used in the battle it depicted. The sequel gives us these fearsome juggernauts, covered with a spiked wooden dome and mounted with a stone dragon head on the bow that was used as both a mount for a cannon and a battering ram. (The drawback, as this movie demonstrates, was that when it was used for the latter purpose, the head tended to get stuck inside enemy ships.) I dare say the whole reason they made this movie was so that we could see these craft, among the first armored warships in military history.
We do have to sit through the first hour or so of this film to reach those, which is full of bureaucratic maneuvering as Wakizaka deposes treacherous underlings and looks past Joseon to fantasize about conquering China and India. (Notwithstanding, it is refreshing that the Japanese villain at least has some respect for his Korean enemy, particularly Admiral Yi’s abilities.) Meanwhile, the admiral’s own subordinates counsel him to throw all his efforts into defending what’s left of Joseon, but the man has thoughts of counterpunching and launching an assault on Japanese-held Busan to change the war’s complexion. All this focus on the planning behind the scenes is very old-school, and it’s not bad, but there’s rather too much of it all the same, with too many naval officers introduced who are indistinguishable from one another.
The good stuff comes in the last 40 minutes, as Yi lures his enemy out from their hiding place with a sortie that appears to create a hole in his defensive formation. We see the movement within that “crane wing” formation that allows the outnumbered Koreans to tackle a larger force, as well as the effects when both commanders change their tactics on the fly. Yi orders his ships’ cannons loaded with shrapnel as well as shells, greatly reducing their firing range in order to inflict enormous damage in close quarters, which does not disappoint. The revelation of how the Koreans have solved the problem with the stone dragon heads on the turtle ships is a cool twist, too. If you like a good battle on the water, watch this space, because there is yet more where this came from.
Hansan: Rising Dragon
Starring Park Hae-il and Byun Yo-han. Directed by Kim Han-min. Written by Kim Han-min and Yun Hong-gi. Not rated.