Eight years after The Admiral: Roaring Currents Kim Han-min (Paradise Murdered, The War of Arrows) returns with Hansan: Rising Dragon his second historical epic based on the career of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. It’s a prequel set five years before the battle of Myeongnyang Strait and focused on the Battle of Hansan Island in which Yi proved himself and made his reputation.
It’s 1592 and the invading Japanese forces under the command of Wakisaka (Byun Yo-han, No Tears for the Dead, Will You Be There?) have driven the Korean army from the capital and into retreat. Only Yi’s forces have prevented total defeat, although he was wounded in the process. With only five days before the Japanese fleet reaches his base, he has to devise a strategy to once again win despite being greatly outnumbered.
Hansan: Rising Dragon begins not with Yi but rather Wakisaka as he orders the survivors of a defeated ship executed before showing us the battle. We see the defeat of their vessel by Yi’s “Turtle Ship” and Yi being shot while providing covering fire for one of his men. It not only allows the film to tease the battle scenes to come it neatly summarizes the difference between the two men.
Most of the first hour is devoted to the days before the battle itself. Yi’s struggles to find the proper tactics while those around him squabble and offer contradictory advice. On the other side, the infighting between Wakisakaand Admiral Kato (Kim Sung-Kyun, Phantom Detective, Sinkhole) the infighting threatens to become literal. And both sides have sent out spies and saboteurs.
All this intrigue provides plenty of chances to stage fight scenes and keeps what could have been a dull discourse on naval tactics interesting. It’s much more interesting to see the raid that forced him not to use the ”Turtle Ship” in the battle than just knowing why he didn’t.
The only problem is that there so many minor characters involved that even with text telling us who they are it’s easy to lose track of who’s who and who is supporting which faction. One whodoes stand out though is Jeong (Kim Hyang-gi, Space Sweepers, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds) the film’s only female character. Despite having no dialogue she makes herself perfectly clear with facial expressions and body language.
It’s a rousing spectacle, depicted with a mix of CGI and miniatures that are, for the most part, convincing. Some of Hansan: Rising Dragon’s green screen work involving the actors is a bit less convincing, however. Thankfully they seem to have realized that and mostly avoided showing the sea in the background,framing the actors with the ship’s bridge, etc.
Hansan: Rising Dragon also has some land-based battle scenes as well. The Japanese Army tries to take Yi’s home port while the fleet is at sea and we see the attempts to hold them off in a narrow mountain pass. It’s not anywhere near as spectacular as the sea battle, but it adds to the film’s overall excitement.
At two hours and ten minutes Hansan: Rising Dragon certainly has an epic length. Fortunately, there’s more than enough happening on screen to support that length. It’s the kind of big historical film that Hollywood hasn’t made since Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World back in 2003. I’m glad to see somebody is still making them though.
Hansan: Rising Dragon opened in its native South Korea on July 27th, the same day as it made its North American premiere at Fantasia. Well Go USA will release it to theatres in the United States and Canada on July 29th. If it’s playing near you I’d recommend going, the battle deserves to be seen on the big screen. And if you’re looking for more like it, FilmTagger has some suggestions.