South Korean film “Hansan: Rising Dragon” is a war historical drama about one big sea battle which was a significant turning point in the Imjin War, which is also known as the Japanese invasions of Korea of 1592–1598. Although I have no idea on how much of the movie is actually fictional, I enjoyed it anyway for not only its epic climactic part but also those efficiently tense scenes preceding that, and I eventually decided to put aside its several notable weak aspects including the rather distant presentation of its legendary real-life hero.
He is Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Park Hae-il), who has been one of the biggest national heroes in Korea since his honorable death at the very end of the Imjin war. When his country was almost cornered to the end shortly after the Japanese army invaded the Korean peninsula in 1592, he miraculously changed the course of the war via a series of victories on the sea, and he was a truly fearsome opponent to those Japanese admirals during that time because of his brilliant strategies and a certain famous secret weapon of his.
The story of the movie begins not long after Admiral Yi won first several battles in 1592. Because the Japanese army has still lots of chance to win the war, Admiral Yi and his navy must make a big forward move as soon as possible for regaining the control over the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula, but he also knows well that he and his navy must be very careful under their increasingly difficult circumstance. While his king, who already fled from the capital, seems to consider running away to China, the Japanese army has already been planning to corner him on the land as well as the sea, and, above all, that secret weapon of his needs some urgent improvement for the next battle.
Naturally, Admiral Yi is quite pressured from many sides including his own men, but he keeps maintaining his stoic fortitude as usual. Although he is physically wounded during the previous sea battle, he is determined to keep going nonetheless, and he also begins to devise one bold strategy which is a risky gamble considering how exactly many factors work together for him and his navy during the upcoming battle.
Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on his main opponent, who is played by Byun Yo-han with grim intensity. Knowing well how smart and dangerous Admiral Yi is for him and his navy, this Japanese admiral is ready to do anything for finding any weak point from his opponent, and that includes sending several spies into the area of Admiral Yi. Once he comes to learn of the major weakness of Admiral Yi’s secret weapon, he becomes more confident about the chance of defeating Admiral Yi, and he does not hesitate at all when he later has to do something drastic for getting what he needs for increasing his odds.
Around these two lead characters, the movie places a number of other characters, but they are more or less than mere story elements. The Korean figures under the command of Admiral Yi look mostly same in their almost identical armors, and the same thing can be said about the Japanese figures serving under Admiral Yi’s main opponent. In addition, the movie has only one substantial female figure in the story, but she does not speak much on the whole, and we are not so surprised by a hidden purpose behind her docile appearance.
Above all, the movie does not go deep into its hero. It surely presents Admiral Yi as a wise and courageous man, but whatever is churning behind his unflappable façade remains elusive to us, and we can only behold him instead of getting to know him more. Park Hae-il’s face can be quite expressive as shown from Park Chan-wook’s latest work “Decision to Leave” (2022), but he is only required to look merely formidable here without revealing much throughout the film, and, despite his diligent efforts, I think the movie is not exactly one of better moments in his solid acting career.
Fortunately, all these and other complaints of mine were completely washed away during the climactic part, which is certainly worthwhile to watch on big screen. You may not totally follow how Admiral Yi’s strategy is unfolded on the sea near Hansan Island, but the movie keeps holding our attention without losing any of its narrative momentum, and it surely delivers impactful highlights for its South Korean audiences. To be frank with you, I think some of them are a bit far-fetched, but they still work in dramatic sense, so I guess I should not grumble about that here.
On the whole, “Hansan: Rising Dragon” is relatively less satisfying than director/co-writer Kim Han-min’s electrifying breakthrough work “War of the Arrows” (2011), but it works better than his previous work “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (2014), which is incidentally about another significant victory in Admiral Yi’s naval career. Although I did not like “The Admiral: Roarding Currents” enough to recommend it, it confirmed to me that Kim is a skillful action movie director who knows one or two things about how to excite audiences, and “Hansan: Rising Dragon” solidifies my inconsequential opinion on his filmmaking talent.
By the way, I have to inform you that Kim is actually planning to conclude with the third film which will be about Admiral Yi’s last battle. It is already titled “Noryang: The Sea of Death”, and I will not expect too much as your typical seasoned moviegoer, but I sincerely wish that it will be as entertaining as what I saw from the two previous films besides being the good final chapter for Kim’s trilogy.