Director Kim Han-min made something of a splash a good while back with his epic historical actioner The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014). Telling the true life tale of Joseon naval commander Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-sik) and his involvement in the famed Battle of Myeongnyang, The Admiral went on to become the highest grossing film of all time in South Korea.

Han-min had already proven to be an adept action director with his previous film War of the Arrows (2011), but The Admiral was on a much grander scale, being filled to the brim with awesome naval battles that easily rivaled anything Hollywood had to offer.

With The Admiral’s success, it’s understandable that Han-min would decide to return to this world, with his first feature in 8 years once again focusing on the exploits of Yi Sun-sin and one of his famed naval battles.

Taking place 5 years before the events of The Admiral, Hansan: Rising Dragon focuses on the battle of Hansan Island where Sun-sin (this time played by Park Hae-il) leads his fleet against the encroaching Japanese, where like the battle of Myeongnyang, they face insurmountable odds.

Any fans of its predecessor will be more than happy to know that Hansan: Rising Dragon is another epic war tale, with Kim Han-min not missing a beat in terms of lensing large scale action, with the finely choreographed battles being equally on par with anything in the first film. 

Some may initially be put off with Han-min’s decision to delve into the history of the time, laying out both Sun-sin and his opponent Wakisaka’s different strategies and maneuvers, but they will be rewarded come the second half of the film which primarily focuses on the actual naval battle, which is an action lovers dream.

Throughout the film there is talk about “geobukseon”, heavy armored ships that feature cannons on each side with a battering ram in the shape of a dragon head at the front. These ships make for a memorable addition to the battle. With explosions aplenty, sword fights and countless ships crashing into each other, it easily ranks as some of the finest action to appear on screen this year.

Heightening the action further is a fine musical score from composer Kim Tae-seong, with the music managing to get the audience’s adrenaline pumped whenever required. Tae-seong had done similarly quality work in Kim Han-min’s two previous features.

The only slight drawback is the odd bit of poor CGI, but honestly you will be so swept up in the action you will hardly notice it. In fact, I have seen films with budgets 10 times larger having poorer effects work, so one really can’t complain.

Now, there isn’t a great deal in character development here but it doesn’t become anything of a hindrance, as the film quickly sweeps the audience up into its tale of naval derring-do, with us essentially getting to know more about the main characters of the film through their actions in battle than any actual depth of character backstory.

Now I can’t honestly judge the film on how historically accurate it is. I wasn’t initially aware of the battle of Hansan Island other than doing a basic internet search. Still, the period detail all seems to be on point with fantastic costumes and set design contributing to the overall authenticity of the story being told on screen.

My initial fear of Hansan: Rising Dragon was that it would just be more of the same, but Interestingly Han-min makes sure this doesn’t happen by telling the story from the point of view of the Japanese invaders, which not only sets the film apart from the first film but adds an air of mystery to the story as the audience aren’t fully aware of what the Joseon fleet are planning.

I was initially disappointed that Choi Min-sik didn’t return in the lead, but considering that it’s set 5 years before the first film but made 8 years after, he is clearly too old for the role. However Park Hae-il makes for a worthy replacement, with him perfectly conveying the characters difficulties of protecting his homeland while at the same time being every inch the heroic leader we witnessed in the first film when Min-sik portrayed him.

This marks Hae-il’s first reteaming with director Han-min since War of the Arrows, with the two clearly bringing out the best in each other. Hae-il had earlier gave a terrific performance in Han-min’s well made mystery Paradise Murdered (2007), which has somewhat became overshadowed by the directors proceeding work.

I wasn’t as aware of actor Byun Yo-han, although he has appeared in a few films I have seen. He isn’t who I would have instantly thought of the enemy leader General Wakizaka Yasuharu, but he does extremely well playing the deadly antagonist even if he isn’t of the same caliber as Cho Jin-woong who previously portrayed the character in The Admiral.

Adding a bit of gravitas to the film is the legendary Ahn Sung-ki, who here plays the role of Commander Eo Young-dam, an important figure who oversaw the southern waterways. Sung-ki is due to reprise this role in next year’s Noryang, which will be the third and final part of Kim Han-min’s Yi Sun-sin trilogy.

Hansan: Rising Dragon has already proven to be a success, becoming the second highest grossing film of the year in its native South Korea. I can also see it doing great business Stateside, where it has been released by the good people at Well Go USA. It will surely go down well with fans of the first film as well as action lovers in general.

As mentioned, there is a third part in the series due, Noryang. This will focus on the last major battle of the Japanese invasions of Korea, the Battle of Noryang. It will no doubt have the same epic scope as the previous two films, with it also featuring some of the best actors in the South Korean film industry.

The Chaser’s (2008) Kim Yoon-seok takes over leading duties as Yi Sun-sin for the final entry, with him being accompanied by major stars like Jung Jae-young, Baek Yoon-sik and Huh Joon-ho. Here’s hoping that Well Go USA also has plans to give this a Western release, as I personally can’t wait to see how Kim Han-min completes his trilogy.

Plot: 4/5
Acting: 4/5
Overall: 4/5


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