In 1592, Japan made its first attempt to invade Korea, leading to several skirmishes on land and at sea. As in other countries, the stories of military victories and failures have made for incredible cinematic opportunities. In 2014, director Kim Han-Min (War of the Arrows) helmed The Admiral: Roaring Currents, a film based on the events of the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang in which Joseon (Korean) Admiral Yi Sun-shin won a decisive victory over the Wae (Japanese) invaders. The Admiral earned $10 million in its first 12 days, so a follow-up story was merely a matter of time. Interestingly, Kim’s next project, Hansan: Rising Dragon, stepped back in time, looking at another battle Admiral Yi helmed, the Battle of Hansando, which took place in 1592 and set the stage for the victories to come. Now, after a successful theatrical run, Well Go USA is bringing Hansan: Rising Dragon, the second film in the Yi Sun-shin Trilogy, home with three featurettes to extend, even briefly, the intrigue that runs throughout Kim’s reflective and exacting action war drama.
After a run-in with Wae Admiral Wakisaka Yasuharu (Byun Yo-han) not only leaves him injured but also aware of several weaknesses in one of the boats in his naval flee, Admiral Yi (Park Hae-il) realizes that several things need to change in order to prevent Wakisaka and the rest of the Wae army from pushing the Joseon forces toward Ming China. Additionally, with each passing day, the spies for both Yi and Wakisaka deliver new information, creating a power struggle that will come down to whichever leader possesses the cleverest mind and strongest constitution.
Though it’s the second in a series, that Hansan is a prequel allows audiences unfamiliar with The Admiral (such as this reviewer) to easily enter into this historical adaptation with relative ease. One of the brilliant devices Kim uses to keep the large cast from becoming too unwieldy is to provide character names and titles when meeting them. Those familiar with the history will instantly know what’s going on and those less so will at least have a sense of military hierarchy and relative relationships. Another great device is the depiction of Yi at work, thinking over what’s been said to him or things he’s done. The camera starts at a distance with Yi looking forward, though not into the lens, slowly pushing in as we hear voices from conversations past play out. This occurs a few times and serves to demonstrate the internal process Yi undergoes as he develops his plans. However, this isn’t just a flourish as, comparatively, the audience is given no access to Wakisaka’s internal processes, generating the notion that Wakisaka keeps everything close and trusts no one. With so much of Hansan playing out like a cat-and-mouse game as both sides maneuver for position as they seek to anticipate what the other will do, that we’re given access to Yi and not Wakisaka could be written off as Yi being the central character in a Korean film depicting Korean history, but it’s also a smart way to convey how Yi listens to everyone, balancing their guidance against his own notions whereas Wakisaka values no one but himself.
A film like Hansan isn’t just engaging because of the character work, of which there is a great deal, but the action it promises. This is a war drama, after all, which means there must be depictions of deadly battle. Much of what the audience sees on screen is on water and the battles we observe are not so much historically accurate as they are cinematically engaging. In the “Staff Commentary” featurette, Kim himself even addresses how he sought to marry the truth with cinema, so please don’t come to Hansan looking for total accuracy. Personally, as incredible as the depictions of naval battle is, cinematographer Kim Tae-sung (Beasts Clawing at Straws) really getting us into the underbelly of the Joseon fighting ships, I found it a little hard to believe the speed and maneuverability of these 16th Century ships as they motored through the water or made hairpin turns with only manual labor to power them. That aside, there’s no denying the compelling nature of the battles as both a means to demonstrate the relative might of each country at that time and the intelligence of each admiral. Speaking of the cinematography, the film really is beautiful to look at, thanks to the use of lighting, in particular, as one doesn’t realize just how much of each set is manipulated with CG until looking at the bonus features. Proper cinematic trickery indeed, as with the exception of a few wide shots, one can’t help but come to believe in the realism of the locations on land and at sea.
As mentioned in the introduction, there are only three featurettes included with the home release. As only a Blu-ray was provided for this review, I can’t speak to which materials are available on which format, but the following are all included on the Blu-ray edition. The first is an almost two-and-a-half-minute featurette called “Character Highlight” which is exactly what it sounds like. For the duration of the featurette, the home viewing audience is treated to a brief spotlight on each of the significant characters in the film in which the actors’ and characters’ names are shown, along with a significant scene. The nearly four-minute “Secrets of Makeup” is more substantive as the makeup designer Cho Tae-hee (Masquerade) takes us through a three-part exploration of the makeup design and application process, including walking us through the thought process for certain looks. For those who enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the films they watch, when not focused on Cho, we get to see footage either of actors getting makeup applied or them on set filming. The last featurette, “Staff Commentary,” is the longest of the three, running roughly four minutes. This one includes director Kim, music director Kim Tae-seong (The Admiral: Roaring Currents), production designer Cho Hwa-sung (Deliver Us from Evil), and other members of the crew. If you want to know about how they brought this sea-faring war epic to life, most of your questions will be answered here. The remaining materials are a single theatrical trailer for Hansan and three preview trailers for other Well Go USA releases: Alienoid, The Witch 2: The Other One, and Emergency Declaration. All three films are either available as of the timing of this writing or will be very soon.
Hansan: Rising Dragon is the kind of film where the investment of time pays off. All the little arguments among characters, the jumps between sides to explore their perspectives of war, the introduction of various spies or saboteurs — each one is given weight and value by the actions of the end. So, even when the character-driven tale doesn’t quite grab you or the naval combat is just a little to modern feeling, the way Hansan wraps, leaves one feeling a certain sense of satisfaction, as though watching expert chess or poker players who come head-to-head and have it out before you.
Hansan: Rising Dragon Special Features:
- Character Highlights (2:23)
- Secrets of Makeup (3:42)
- Staff Commentary (4:01)
- One (1) Trailer (1:35)
- Three (3) Well Go USA Previews
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital November 15th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA Hansan: Rising Dragon webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.