The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on what you missed, click here
Hasan: Rising Dragon featured as the Centerpiece Film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, and it’s not difficult to see why: it’s a BIG movie, a blockbuster historical war epic where you can see every last cent on the screen in its epic sea battles.
Unfortunately, the movie fares slightly less well on land.
The story takes place in 1592, during the the Japanese invasion of the kingdom of Joseon (which has really been going through it this festival). The marauding Japanese forces (referred to as the War and led by one Admiral Wakizaka) have the Joseon army on the back foot, outgunned and suffering from a lack of resources. But an unexpected victory at The Battle of Sacheon has given them hope in desperate times… a light in the darkness that the military minds of the kingdom can’t agree on how to proceed and capitalize on the win.
Conservative Admiral Won (Son Hyun-joo) prefers a strategy of defense, to concentrate on protecting key strategic Jeonji Fortress from enemy capture. But Admiral Yi (Park Hae-il), the man responsible for the victory at Sacheon, is of the firm belief that now is the time to attack. But as portrayed by Byun Yo-han, Wakizaka is a wily opponent, one determined to cut Korean forces off at the knees, see them crushed and broken. And he’s got all the time and the resources to do it…
As I was watching the film unfold, a surprising comparison came to mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz. No one’s favorite effort from the Master of Suspense to be sure, but I found a curious structural similarity, in the multifaceted approach to its narrative; a plethora of characters of varying degrees of significance interacting with the plot in the ways they were designed to. Not significant on their own, but useful as an aspect of the sum of their parts.
Oddly, this is the way I related to the scale of this movie. While, unlike Topaz, there is a strong center in Admiral Yin, we do cut away from him often, to other generals, to the Wae alliance, to captives and servants, and even the occasional infantry soldier. And through these quasi-tangents, there is a fuller sense of the scope of war itself.
Meanwhile, as has become my custom in these situations, I steadfastly ignored the torrent of locations and characters (chyrons indicating name, rank and honorifics when applicable, are helpfully provided whenever anyone new pops up on screen. Kind of like player stats during Monday Night Football), confident that the people it was important to pay attention to would make their presence known narratively. And so it was; for all the generals, commanders, and principal advisors that weaved their way through the films two hours and change, there were really only four or five major characters that it feels necessary to single out.
There’s Yi, of course. And Wakizaka. And crusty ol’ Admiral Won. The fourth I’ll get to in a bit, but before that, let’s take a moment to observe the three characters in question, and how their prominence is indicative of one of the most interesting aspects of the film as a whole:
This is a story of generals.
If y’all will indulge me as I pontificate on film theory fueled at least in part by a mix of cultural ignorance and facile observation, it occurs to me that the majority of war movies, particularly in America, take place from the vantage point of the soldier, the boots on the ground, as it were. This is where the sense of humanity comes in; we can see ourselves in the soldiers, and their travails are our travails.
Movies about command are far rarer, and it’s not difficult to figure out why: it’s a far easier ask to get an audience to side with those boots on the ground than it is to ask them to sympathize with the man who might be sending them off to die.
But that is exactly where Hansan: Rising Dragon makes its nest: it is a film very much concerned with strategy, and tactics. Most scenes are dedicated to either one side or the other trying to anticipate what the enemy is thinking, trying to figure out how best to allocate their resources, and the spycraft of getting useful intelligence to use against them. And with a few exceptions here and there, this is done via talk, not action.
While the film could never in a million years be painted with the brush ‘dull’, it has to be said that a not insignificant portion of the movie takes place off the battlefield, in war offices and strategy meetings. And at that scale, when we’re talking about the fate of nations, combined with being a period of history and a society I know nothing about… well, inevitably, there’s going to be a disconnect. And because we don’t necessarily have that emotional connection to the stakes, the moments that are not spectacle can, on occasion, be alienating.
By no means bad, mind you; just… hard to relate to, hard to invest in.
With that in mind, it’s telling that the moment that resonates most on an emotional level is a brief scene where Admiral Yin has a brief conversation with the fourth important character I alluded to earlier, a soldier captured during the Battle of Sacheon. After being tortured for information by the other generals, he finds himself alone with Yi and asks him a simple question: “What is this war about?”
“A battle of the righteous against the unrighteous”
“Not a battle of nations?”
This character (who, ahem, may or may not have been named in the film, who am I to know?), becomes the closest thing we have to the perspective of the actual soldier, and he is so moved by Yi’s courage and compassion for his men that he swears an oath of loyalty. And through this character, we are allowed an insight into Yi and his motivations that simply wouldn’t be possible in all the scenes with his fellow leaders and strategists. And, in its way, lays out the primary difference between the Joseon armies and their Japanese invaders: that sense of unity.
Not for nothing do we spend a lot of time with Wakizaka, and his not necessarily harmonious relationship with his fellow commanders; it provides a contrast to the conflict between Yin and Won, which is fraught but never comes to near-violence and strategic betrayal like Wakizaka’s alliances; there is a baseline of respect and a sense of shared goals to the Joseon side, and while that might not be why they win (it’s mainly that Admiral Yin is a total badass), at bare minimum, it lends a sense of humanity and thematic depth to a movie that doesn’t always make space for such things.
But in the end, all of this subordinate to the amazing pyrotechnics of the extended Battle of Hansan Island, a tour de force of maritime mayhem that literally blows most other modern battle scenes out of the water. Part of this is the novelty of naval battles being staged on this scale, and art is just the choreography and the stunningly choreographed grand release of the physical execution of the strategizing that has remained theory up until now (the camera spends a fair amount of the movie lingering over drawings of the much-discussed crane wing formation, to amplify the impact when we finally see it in action). Whatever reservations I had about certain earlier portions of the film
What I did not know going into this film, is that it was a sequel, the second in a trilogy of movies by Kim Han-min detailing the naval exploits of Yin, who is a legendary figure in Korean history. So there are certain aspects of the film that may well be lost on me. But taken as a single serving of spectacle based cinema in and of itself, it is a mostly effective piece of work.