It is odd to simultaneously recognize The Myth and its use in keeping entrenched power systems entrenched while simultaneously enjoying the entertainment that it produces. As we often say coming out of Korean movies, “it makes you proud to be a Korean”. Even if you’re, y’know, not, at least until transracialism is appreciated the way some other trans are. This crystallized for me this year in a way it hasn’t in the past. Hansan: Rising Dragon is such a clear example, it and It’s A Wonderful Life (and Best Years of our Lives) for that matter really helped me grasp the power of The Myth.
In this movie, a prequel to The Admiral: Roaring Currents, Admiral Yi is the focus of a successful naval battle which stymied the Japanese invasion of Korea. (At least somewhat; The Myth should never be taken for actual history.) The Koreans are outmatched by the Japanese in most regards except that they have “turtle ships”, which are boats with their decks completely shielded and covered with spikes. These have a devastating effect on the enemy morale—the Japanese call them “sea monsters”.
The dramatization of the events here has the somewhat effective turtle ships having certain defects, and a patriotic engineer struggling to redesign them in time for the battle. The Japanese, over-confident and jockeying for position between them to be the first to invade China, get a lot of screen time here so that the Korean tactics will be a surprise for the audience as well as the Japanese (all played by Koreans).
Besides the noble Admiral Yi, who must stand against the (classic Korean trope) stodgy, fearful bureaucratic military and the engineer who struggles to overcome the limits of technology, we also get a spy girl who sacrifices her body to the Japanese monsters in order to help get intel out, and most significantly, a turncoat Japanese soldier who is critical in the Korean war effort.
“This isn’t a struggle for land between powerful forces, is it?” he asks Yi after being tortured. Yi says, “No, it is a battle of good versus evil.”
By contrast, the Korean myth positions the Japanese as evil (often not in a historical context, either, just generally) whereas the American Myth just has the British as some guys we’re pretty closely related to but have some disagreements with. Granted, the British never tried a genocide against us. Multiple times. Over centuries. So The Myth isn’t always wrong or even much exaggerated.
The drama is all very heightened, of course, and this is very effective when it comes to the battle scenes. It is impossible not to cheer for the virtuous Koreans as they thwart the evil Japanese invaders (spoilers?) even if, like The Boy and I, you find the depiction of the actual battles somewhat dubious.
How successful was this film? Well, it was the number two movie in Korea, with about half the receipts of the #1 movie, The Roundup. Curiously, Box Office Mojo doesn’t note the actual sales for this film, even though it gets The Roundup right and (the much less successful Korean popcorn flick) Alienoid. But to put it in perspective, Hansan would comfortably be in the top 40 of American films for 2022 (around 30)—and 98% of that came from South Korea which has less than 1/6th of the population. It feels a little bit like a Maverick: Top Gun situation—except that South Korea is steeped in their own myth, unlike the USA, where Maverick stands alone.
To me, the interesting part of this is that it’s not like the Koreans don’t know it’s a myth. As noted with the earlier Joeson era story of the birth of the Korean written language, there are considerable debates and controversies around the story, both broadly and in details. But most seem to recognize that the exigencies of telling a dramatic story require certain dramatic flourishes, and can point that out without having to absolutely hate and destroy The Myth.
We had so much fun with it, we watched it later at home along with The Admiral and it was well worth seeing again. Even if we did eat sushi while watching it.