28 November 2022

Movie review: Hansan: Rising Dragon

As someone with a deep interest in Imjin War, I actually enjoyed Hansan: Rising Dragon way more that I thought I would, even though objectively speaking Hansan: Rising Dragon isn't nearly as good as its critically acclaimed previous installment, The Admiral: Roaring Currents. The main reason, I think, is because I only had passing knowledge about Imjin War back then, so my excitement of watching historical events unfold in the movie wasn't as high as I do now.

My first "ha, I know that guy!" moment to the film is the debut of young naval commander Yi Un-ryong (이운룡 or 李雲龍). If only he was as heroic and good-looking during Siege of Ulsan as he did in this film...
As with most big-budget Korean films, production quality of Hansan: Rising Dragon is top notch, and I dare say in general Korea produces far better historical epics than both China and Japan. That said, the director Kim Han-min really picked a difficult battle to adapt. Whereas The Admiral: Roaring Currents focus on the struggle of Yi Sun-sin (이순신 or 李舜臣) against overwhelming odds during Battle of Myeongnyang, which greatly humanised the legendary hero and makes for a compelling story, Hansan: Rising Dragon is set during Battle of Hansan Island, of which the Koreans smoked the Japanese without much trouble, and there wasn't much of anything interesting to tell. Throughout the film I can really see the director pulls out all the stops and crammed as many artistic licenses as possible just to make the story more palatable. This ironically makes the planning, espionage and build-up of the first half far more interesting and entertaining to me than the climactic naval action of the second half, and for all the wrong reasons.

(Major spoilers ahead, be warned!)

Historical faithfulness, or lack thereof

Battle of Yongin was a major Joseon offensive to recapture Hanseong (present-day Seoul) that ended in disaster. Despite its importance, this battle is conspicuously absent in Samuel Hawley's book, so it is largely unheard of in the West, even more so than Imjin War itself. 
Hansan: Rising Dragon, at least, starts off grounded and faithful enough to history, with a quick retelling of important events and battles leading up to the point in the film. I particularly like the attention given to Battle of Yongin, which established Wakisaka Yasuharu (脇坂安治), the primary antagonist of the film, as a dangerous threat. I also like the mention of Joseon king abandoned Pyongyang and fled to Uiju, while contemplating outright submitting to Ming Dynasty in exchange for personal protection (i.e. abandoning the entirely of his Korean subjects).

However, as the story progress and creative liberties took over, it quickly derails from history and become increasingly ridiculous. Sure, a few tie-in fictional stories about loyal maid serving as secret agent or a righteous Japanese defecting to the Koreans are fine, as these are largely inconsequential to the larger historical narrative. But Wakisaka Yasuharu outright attacking his fellow daimyō Katō Yoshiaki (加藤嘉明) and Kuki Yoshitaka (九鬼嘉隆), then confiscating their fleets at sword point? This can only be described as utter nonsense. By the way, the three of them actually met up half a month earlier, not one day before the battle as shown in the film.

Katō Yoshiaki was a fellow Seven Spears of Shizugatake of Wakisaka Yasuharu, while Kuki Yoshitaka was a more powerful daimyō than him.
Wakisaka Yasuharu offering Kobayakawa Takakage (小早川隆景) entire Jeolla Province so that the later will attack Yi Sun-sin's naval base by land at the same time as the naval battle also never happened. Sure, Kobayakawa Takakage’s force did attack Ungchi Pass and fought the Korean righteous armies on the same day as Battle of Hansan Island, but only because he was already tasked with the subjugation of Jeolla Province under Hideyoshi's Hachidokuniwari (八道国割, lit. 'Dividing the eight provinces') strategy, not because someone else bribed him. Also, he really did intend to attack Jeonju, not Yi Sun-sin's naval base.

Oh, to the contrary of the emotional victory scene near the end of the film, Koreans actually lost the land battle.

Sorry, never happened.
As bad as they seem, I must say these are acceptable breaks from reality, as historical accuracy comes second to storytelling in an adaptation like this. Yet even with that concession I still see the story of the film as weak and awkward.

Hollywood Hallyuwood tactics

Credit where credit is due, large numbers of warships forming complex formation has an epic feel to it, not to mention far more visually engaging than Age of Sail-style broadside shootout. The screenplay of the movie is definitely superb.
The historical Battle of Hansan Island was fought between two roughly equal-sized navies (56 Joseon ships against 73 Japanese ships, although the size of Japanese navy was exaggerated). Due to superior ship design and heavier armament, Joseon navy had a massive advantage over Japanese navy, and the resulting battle can be summed up as "Yi Sun-sin arrayed his fleet in Hak Ik-jin (鶴翼陣, lit. 'Crane wing formation') and BAM, his tactic worked and he won the battle. End of story.".

I actually quite like this scene of Yi Sun-sin writing down the names of each of the Joseon commanders to appropriate positions of his battle formation. It is a short but much appreciated moment that shows Yi Sun-sin's true calibre as a leader.
Obviously a story like that wouldn't work at all on the big screen, so the director has to dial up the difficulties to make the stakes higher and the conflict compelling. And dial-up he did. Aside from the two major historical inaccuracies mentioned above making the Japanese threat much more severe, the antagonist Wakisaka Yasuharu also brought in a cannon-armed, iron-hulled warship to counter Yi Sun-sin's turtle ships, and even tried to emulate a naval version of Battle of Mikatagahara where Tokugawa Ieyasu's kakuyoku-no-jin (鶴翼の陣, lit. 'Crane wing formation', Japanese analogue to Yi Sun-sin's Hak Ik-jin, sharing the exact same name) was defeated by Takeda Shingen's gyorin-no-jin (魚鱗の陣, lit. 'Fish scale formation').

And thus the stakes are successfully raised, yet new dilemmas emerge. Firstly, raising the stakes also means that more attention and screen time are devoted to show the ANTAGONIST'S attempts at tackling challenge after challenge being thrown at him from the protagonist's side. While this is entertaining to watch, portraying the antagonist this way establishes the wrong kind of power dynamics (can't believe the bad guys are actually the underdog!), turning the overall narrative on its head. 

Secondly, with a dangerous antagonist laser-focused on countering Yi Sun-sin's every moves, a historically faithful recreation of his naval tactics seems wholly inadequate to overcome the dialed-up challenge. Yet the protagonist must win, and it's up to the director to make sure that he did. Unfortunately, the director wrote himself into a corner—lacking the military experience and genius of the historical character he is trying to portray, the ideas he's come up with are contrived and laden with issues, often requiring the antagonist to pick up idiot ball at crucial moments to work at all (the same problem can also be seen in China's God of War movie I reviewed). 

Two major issues will be discussed below:

The "super turtle ship" subplot

When standard turtle ship isn't cut for the job, it's time to bust out the super turtle ship!
The director went to great length to show the deficiencies of the original turtle ship, how the villain stole the blueprint to learn about these weaknesses, how he specifically prepared an iron-hulled warship as a counter, and how Yi Sun-sin contemplated to not deploy his turtle ships for the climactic battle—all to prepare the audience for the eventual grand reveal of the improved "super" turtle ship. 

In all honesty, the idea of preparing a trump card of your own to counter enemy's ace in a hole isn't half bad, and if done well the subplot could've culminate into an interesting and satisfying ultimate showdown. The problem, however, is that Yi Sun-sin was no shipbuilder, so he can only point out the problem, but not solve it himself. Thus the role of advancing arguably the most important plot thread of the story falls on the shoulders of shipwright Na Dae-yong (나대용 or 羅大用), a minor character with barely a dozen lines of dialogue. Zero participation from the protagonist alone makes this subplot the weakest part of the film.

As if that wasn't enough, the subplot was then resolved offscreen. One moment Na Dae-yong was begging Yi Sun-sin to reconsider his decision to not deploy turtle ships in battle, the next moment he was already on his brand new super turtle ship, charging into battle to save the day. How did Na Dae-yong come up with the improved design? The audience are not told. He simply did. There isn't even any construction montage or eureka moment in the film.

Double-loading cannons with both cannonballs and pellets

With a much larger fleet and a battle formation tailor-made to counter Yi Sun-sin's own, the film's antagonist Wakisaka Yasuharu posed a significantly larger threat compared to his historical counterpart, necessitating some kind of new countermeasure from the protagonist's side. However, since Battle of Hansan Island is what made famous Yi Sun-sin's Hak Ik-jin battle formation, the director is clearly unwilling to make drastic change to his battle formation, lest the film strays too far from history and alienates Korean audience familiar with the battle (which is most of them).

So the director made Yi Sun-sin come up with a novel tactic—double-loading all cannons with both cannonballs and pellets, sacrificing range and accuracy for sheer destructiveness—to complement his battle formation. Now the protagonist's side can have a new trump card against the devious tactics of their adversary, without having to alter the iconic battle formation Yi Sun-sin was so famous for. Seems like a great idea huh?

Well, except for the fact that this "novel" tactic isn't novel at all. Loading a cannon with both cannonball and smaller pellets was the standard practice of Ming artillerymen, and presumably their Joseon counterparts as well. Furthermore, it was literally impossible for the relatively weak Joseon cannons to decimate hundreds of Japanese ships with a single salvo, double-loaded or no. In fact I doubt even the significantly more powerful Hong Yi Pao (紅夷砲) could achieve that, as wooden ships are notoriously difficult to sink.

Not gonna lie, seeing Japanese gyorin-no-jin went against Korean Hak Ik-jin brings me immense excitement, and in my opinion this is the high point of the second half of the film.
Moreover, even if I am to assume these double-loaded cannons really work as advertised (realism often takes a backseat to epic battle and mayhem on the big screen), the tactic STILL wouldn't work, and proved far more detrimental to Yi Sun Sin's Hak Ik-jin than complement it.

This is because in order to maximise the damage his double-loaded cannons can inflict, Yi Sun-sin ordered his entire fleet to hold fire until the very last moment. This was a grave mistake, for it created a highly unfavourable situation where only a dozen or so Joseon warships plus three turtle ships were actually engaging the massive Japanese fleet of more than one hundred ships for the majority of the battle, while the rest of the Joseon fleet simply sat and watched. 

Thus the antagonist Wakisaka Yasuharu was handed two viable options to victory: either he takes his sweet time to bring down the three turtle ships (no matter how powerful, three turtle ships without support could never win against a hundred Japanese warships), then sweeps away the demoralised Koreans, or he can ignore the lumbering turtle ships and charge into Joseon fleet with his gyorin-no-jin, splitting Joseon fleet in two in a reminiscence of Battle of Trafalgar. Wakisaka Yasuharu chose the second option and was actually set for victory. Unfortunately, he was the bad guy and thus destined to lose—at wit's end, the director simply forced Wakisaka Yasuharu to pick up an idiot ball at the last moment to make him lose (the protagonist MUST win no matter what after all).

Idiot ball caught in 4K: instead of maintaining the sharp wedge of gyorin-no-jin and punch a hole through Hak Ik-jin, Wakisaka Yasuharu suddenly ordered his fleet to fan out to present maximum number of targets for the Koreans to shoot at. His entire fleet was shot to pieces as a result.

Other military geekery

There are a few more points about the battle that I would like to criticise. Personally I think these are very minor problems that won't detract from the enjoyment of the movie, but hey, I didn't blog about Ming military all these years for nothing. Pardon me but OF COURSE I will squint really hard at every nook and cranny for details.

Naval ramming

While I am far from an expert in this field, the more I learned about ancient naval warfare, the more I grow skeptical of the idea that turtle ship was even usable in naval ramming, much less designed for it.

Turtle ship ramming is possibly the biggest misconception about Yi Sun-sin's naval tactics.
To make ramming possible at all, a strong keel to provide longitudinal strength to the hull is mandatory, as the warship must be able to absorb and withstand the tremendous force generated during the moment of collision. Furthermore, warships designed for ramming, such as the ancient galleys, tend to have a sleek profile with narrow or pointed prow, both for speed and to minimise area of contact in order to avoid unnecessary damage to the hull. Unfortunately Turtle ship had all the undesirable traits of a ramming vessel, what with being a keel-less ship with boxy hull and wide, flat prow.

Ironically the super turtle ship with retractable dragon head and a protruded demon-head ram below the water line is far more sensibly-designed for ramming attack. This is a fictional design though.

Japanese Cannons

Japanese cannons in the film are HUMONGOUS, matching or possibly even exceeding the size of the the renowned Kunikuzushi (国崩し, lit. 'Destroyer of provinces') siege cannon. Given Japan's artillery deficiency during Sengoku period, it is extremely unlikely that Wakisaka Yasuharu could procure so many heavy cannons in such a short amount of time. It is also pretty stupid, not to mention ahistorical, to mount heavy cannons beside the command tower of a warship.

Movie physics: somehow mounting heavy cannons weighing several tonnes at the tallest part of a ship has zero effect on the ships's balance or centre of gravity.
Even more jarring is how the Japanese handled their cannons in the film—and I thought the handheld mortar scene is dumb enough. Surely the director understands standing directly behind a cannon while it is firing is a stupendously bad idea?

Firing a cannon like this is a good way to get your entire rib cage pulverised.


Both Panokseon and Geobukseon (turtle ship) mount their anchors directly in front of the prow.
It is odd that none of the ships in the film have an anchor, despite the otherwise great attention to details. While not a particularly serious issue, for me this is a tell-tale sign that these ships are all CGI, and a little immersion-breaking.

Instantaneous communication

Flag signals, cool.
I really appreciate that the director devoted some screen time to show how communication happens between ships, with drums, flags, and in one case even kites being used to relay orders. Unfortunately, while initially depicted fairly realistically, communications between ships become drastically faster as the battle picks up pace, and by the end of the film both protagonist and antagonist had become essentially telepathic.

Nationalistic undertone and inflated self-importance

The tattered banner of righteous army is a nice touch of symbolism about a just war. 
Imjin War is portrayed as just war, a struggle between the righteous and the wicked, of good and evil, and of everyday Korean people against foreign invaders. The last one is part of the reason why the director forcibly added the otherwise unrelated Battle of Ungchi Pass into the narrative—to allow for the participation of citizen militia in the defence of their home country. This is not a criticism by the way, as they are par of the course for a nationalistic film. There is nothing wrong with depicting a defensive war as just.

Yet the film goes beyond even nationalism and into the territory of chauvinism with the inclusion of the oft-repeated myth about a second Japanese supply route at the west coast of Korea (which never existed), as well as Hideyoshi's plan to bypass Korea entirely and launch a direct naval invasion on China's Tianjin city, which he secretly entrusted Wakisaka Yasuharu to carry out. The sheer insanity of this fictitious plan beggars belief. Not only is Tianjin thousands of kilometres away from South Korea, it also sits securely inside Bohai Bay and guarded by strategically important Shandong peninsula and Liaodong peninsula. A direct naval invasion of Tianjin means that Japanese fleet would have to sail for weeks on open sea without any stopping point, into a gigantic death trap that was the Bohai Bay, and without any hope of resupply. Lack of drinkable water alone would've decimated most of the fleet.

Nah, China would be just fine. 
Yet the implausibility of the plan isn't easily noticed, especially by lay audience, while the underlying message is made abundantly clear: it is not enough for the target audience to be basked in a sense of national pride, they are also entitled to gratitude because they see themselves as protectors shielding others from the same terrible fate.


  1. In summary, when making a film about history's battles, we have the chance to stuck into two situation:

    1/ We got a battle where our side is stronger than "evil side".
    2/ We got a battle where our side is too weak that we can't cause any casualties to the "evil side".

    With the director, they usually need a battle where:
    + Our side is weaker than "evil side".
    + But we have something good to defeat the enemy.
    + even if we lost, we still caused much of casualties to our enemy.

    In the reality, that "perfect battle" sometime doesn't really exist. Even the battle of Myeongnyang, we ( Korean) are 12 battleship ( + cannon) fight against 300 smaller ships which only armed with bow and matchlock rifle. It as same as the tragic battle of our enemy more than our side if Yi Su Shin doesn't got much of trouble with his soldiers' morale. - -'

    In many films, director simple change everything to creat the " perfect battle" by himself. And it finally turn the story becomes something illogical.

    1. More or less.
      With proper use of artistic license it is still possible to make a good adaptation of a historical battle where good guy is stronger than the bad guy, but it needs to be handled very very carefully.

  2. So far as naval rams go, history has produced so very odd ones. I'd suggest checking Wikipedia for the history of the United States Ram Fleet and the First Battle of Memphis. The ships involved are rather more like Geobukseon than one might expect.

    Thank you for this review!

    1. The introduction of iron hull and steam propulsion probably changed a lot of the considerations in designing a ramming ship, yet even steam rams maintain a pointed prow.

    2. Actually, the steamboats in the US ram fleet were wooden framed and wooden keeled, and the ram prow was wooden too. Some of them were protected by metal plate (ironclad were cannon-proof, more or less, while "tinclad" ships could stop a rifle bullet), some by cotton bales ("cottonclad") and some were unarmored and depended on speed and luck to survive. Seriously, it's worth looking at them, because they were accidentally quite similar to the Turtle ships. The reason they're so odd was that they were first generation technology (ironclad steamships), and the designers were working out how to fight with paddlewheeled boats.

      The considerations needed to be taken were not just about the ramming ships themselves, but their targets too.

      Warhips of the time were steam-powered ironclads, so the revival of ramming was in part an attempt to defeat the hull below the water line (which was not armoured) because ironclad hulls were very resistant to cannon. Hence many steam rams had very low freeboard (nearly the entire hull is submerged underwater).

      This is again in contrast with Joseon warships, being U-bottom wooden ships they had very high freeboard. This makes sense too, because taller ships are more difficult to board, and can directly shoot at the deck of a shorter ship.

    4. Thanks, I appreciate that.

      The other consideration with the first generation ironclads is that they were shallow draft for harbors and (on the Mississippi) for shallow rivers. The Japanese ships attacking Korea had high freeboard, not just to protect against boarders, but also to make them more seaworthy. If I recall correctly, the coastal waters in Korea tend to be fairly shallow, and this was reflected in their ship design as well. A way to think of this is that the turtle ships were for coastal defense of Korea, not for crossing to Japan and raiding those coasts. If the Koreans had tried that, they probably would have capsized every turtle ship sent on the mission.

      I'd simply end by pointing out that the combat steamships (all the ones of the 1800s, basically) were all experimental, trying to incorporate new technology, including steam (fuel intensive and thus short range), cannon-proof iron plate (initially so heavy that the ships could barely float, let alone move), and massive improvements in guns (which doomed naval rams by the 1880s). The resulting ships and boats look really odd to modern eyes.

      I think similar things happened in Korea. And in the Ming military, for that matter.

      I'll stop wasting your time, but I did want to thank you for spending so much effort on this really informative blog. I've learned quite a lot reading it.

  3. Were the Righteous Armies really that affective against the invading Japanese? Or is it just nationalist wishful thinking? a way for the Koreans to alleviate some sort of guilt for not (initially) resisting the Japanese more vigorously? and a way to downplay the Ming contribution, I've heard some Korean nationalists say the Chinese were not even needed as they would have defeated the Japanese without Ming intervention. Historically we know armed civilian resistance didn't play a big role in defeating an occupying power, whether it is the Spanish guerillas resisting the Napoleonic French, or the French resistance and the partisans in Russia against the Nazis, or the Vietcong against the Americans. I would think the Righteous Armies proved to more of an annoyance to the Japanese than a threat, it took organized and experienced armies of the Ming and regular Korean military to fight and defeat the Japanese.

    1. @Der
      "Were the Righteous Armies really that effective against the invading Japanese?"
      They did better than Joseon regular army, at least.

      "Or is it just nationalist wishful thinking? a way for the Koreans to alleviate some sort of guilt for not (initially) resisting the Japanese more vigorously?"
      Rather than guilt, I think it's to depict the contribution of "we the people" in resisting foreign invaders, since it's easier for the average audience to resonate with common people than larger-than-life heroes of distant past.

      "a way to downplay the Ming contribution"
      As far as this movie is concerned, Ming wasn't involved yet, so there's nothing to downplay.

      "I've heard some Korean nationalists say the Chinese were not even needed as they would have defeated the Japanese without Ming intervention."
      Of course. That's what you should expect from nationalists.

      "Historically we know armed civilian resistance didn't play a big role in defeating an occupying power."
      Most of the time, this is true but exceptions do exist though. Ming Dynasty was founded that way.

      "I would think the Righteous Armies proved to more of an annoyance to the Japanese than a threat"
      They were a pretty big annoyance to say the least, but yes, not a decisive threat to the Japanese. Doesn't help that Joseon government treated them like sh*t.


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