In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.
“Hansan: Rising Dragon” is director Kim Han-min’s second film of his trilogy depicting Korea’s much celebrated historical figure Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598). The first was “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (2014), the country’s No.1 box office hit, and the final will be “Noryang,” which is expected to be released late this year or early next year.
As Kim’s first film depicting Korea’s most famous naval commander Yi during the epic naval battle of Myeongnyang (1597) faced legal battles for alleged historical distortion, the director made extra effort to stay true to the actual facts in his latest flick. However, because the actual Battle of Hansan Island, a naval war that took place soon after the outbreak of the Imjin War (1592-98), was such a clean sweep for Yi’s fleet, the director had to dramatize some of the scenes to make sure the film sees some commercial success.
His efforts are paying off. “Hansan: Rising Dragon,” which hit local theaters on July 27, only recently dropped a rank last week and is No. 2 at Korea’s box office, giving away the spot to “Squid Game” actor Lee Jung-jae’s directorial debut film “Hunt,” which premiered on Aug. 10. “Hansan” however, still managed to surpass 5 million in ticket sales at the local box office, just 15 days after its premiere.
While Kim’s first film Admiral Yi film was called a “major historic distortion” by both historians and moviegoers, they seem to be more generous toward his latest offering, calling some of the differences in the plot with the actual history “dramatizations,” as opposed to “distortions.”
But some historians think that the director has gone a little overboard to portray Yi’s famous turtle ship, known as geobukseon.
Na Dae-yong is a real character who designed the battleships, including geobukseon for Yi, during the Imjin War. However, in the film, Na reconstructs a new turtle ship ahead of the battle on the seas of Hansan Island as the Japanese naval forces have realized the major weakness of the ship — that the head of the fierce-looking dragon mounted on the bow of the vessel, gets stuck when it deliberately crashes into atakebune, a large Japanese warship of the 16th century, in an attempt to destroy the enemy’s warship. The new turtle ship that gets completed just a few days before Yi sets out for the battle came with an innovative function. In the film’s climax, when the turtle ship was just about to crash into one of the Atakebune, the admiral gives a signal and the dragon’s head suddenly rolls back into the hull, eliminating the ship’s weakness while greatly increasing the force of the attack. The Japanese naval forces look on in astonishment, while viewers couldn’t help but feel so proud of the great turtle ship of Yi Sun-shin. In the film, Na designs the new turtle ship after getting inspiration from a turtle that pulls its limbs and head into its shell.
However, according to Hong Soon-jae, a researcher at the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage, there’s no historical record that proves the turtle ship had such a function.
“In fact, it’s impossible to construct a ship in such a way,” said Hong. “In the film, the dragon head was installed on top of what looks like a wheelbarrow so that the sailors can roll it back quickly. But having the heavy dragon head on wheels instead of having it mounted on the bow of the ship, it would be very insecure on such a rough sea like the Hansan.”
There are records that Na did design a new ship using elements of the turtle ship and panokseon, which was Korea’s then primary battleship, but it was eight years after the end of the Imjin War in 1606.
Experts also point out that the turtle ships crashing into Japanese warships should not be portrayed as fact as it is still highly disputed whether such incidents actually took place. Some insist that the turtle ship was never designed to physically crash into another ship, but designed in such a way to “approach the Japanese fleet as close as possible” with a dragon head on its bow so that the ship can engage in psychological warfare while prohibiting the Japanese forces from boarding. Others think it actually engaged in physical collisions.
Excluding the added function of the dragon head rolling back into the hull, the director stuck true to the design of the turtle ship in the film.
There are many different versions of turtle ships. The first reference to a turtle ship is in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. It states that such a ship, whose name derives from its protective shell-like covering, was used during a battle against Japan in 1413 and 1415. Then Yi orders Na to design an improved version of a turtle ship to be used during the battle against the Japanese naval forces supporting Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attempt to conquer Korea from 1592 to 1598.
The most well-known design of a turtle ship appears in the collected works of Admiral Yi Sun-shin during the period of King Jeongjo, which was published in 1795. Two illustrations of the turtle ship in this collection of works show one with the dragon head from its neck protruding from the very top of the bow, which was the turtle ship of the Jeolla Province, while the other showing just the head fixed on the center of the bow, which was the turtle ship of Tongje, or the naval district of Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang.
One other feature that’s commonly known about a turtle ship is sharp iron spikes that protrude from hexagonal plates covering the top of the ship. Some historical documents show the spikes but the use of metal plating is still disputed. The ship was basically a reinforced version of panokseon, but specifically designed for naval battles against Japan which primarily used on-board hand-to-hand combat tactics.
The use of hakikjin, or the “siege-and-annihilation” strategy that Yi uses in this battle is a historical fact, though it wasn’t as emphasized in the film as much as the turtle ship is glorified. By pretending to retreat from the narrow Gyonnaeryang Straight, Yi lured enemy ships to the wide-open sea of Hansan Island. As soon as the Japanese fleet reached the open sea, Yi’s fleet spread out in the shape of a crane’s wing, surrounding the enemy so that it can annihilate the Japanese armada. The strategy was mostly used in land battles, but Yi adopted it for the first time in the Battle of Hansan.
The film also briefly mentions that it’s such a great feat for Yi to destroy 59 ships among 73 when Yi only had 60 ships. But according to maritime cultural heritage researchers, the level of power would’ve been almost the same considering the types of ships and the firearms on board, despite Japan outnumbering the Korean fleet.
The film ends with Yi shooting an arrow at Japanese general Wakisaka Yasuharu, played by Byun Yo-han, as he tries to escape his vessel that has been destroyed by the turtle ship. Yasuharu is hit and falls into the sea. But the real history is a little different. The Japanese general abandons his ship and hides on a nearby uninhabited island, surviving off seaweed until the Korean navy forces withdrew.
According to historical records, Yi was able to get ready with his strategy of using the hakikjin on the night before the battle because he was able to receive a tip-off from a shepherd named Kim Chon-son, who was hiding in Mireuk Island after the outbreak of the Imjin War. Kim witnessed about 70 ships anchored near Gyonnaeryang Straight so he went straight to Admiral Yi to let his forces know. Thanks to the information, Yi was able to draw up the hakikjin and launch the battle the next day. But in the film, the process of Yi receiving the information from Kim is more dramatized and involves another character, a Korean gisaeng (a female entertainer of the Joseon Dynasty), who works as a spy inside the Japanese military camp. The gisaeng is played by Kim Hyang-gi.
Viewers will also be curious about whether or not the Japanese soldier named Junsa, played by actor Kim Sung-kyu, is a real character. He is indeed real, however, the character has been heavily dramatized. Historical records state that Junsa is a Japanese soldier who defected to the Korean side.
In fact, Junsa’s name appears in Nanjung Ilgi, or War Diary, written by Yi. It states that Junsa changed to the Joseon side at the Angolpo battle, which took place two days after the Battle of the Hansan. Therefore, everything about Junsa in the film is fiction. He is not the one that shot Admiral Yi and later defects after witnessing how Yi treasures the lives of his soldiers.
Historians say the actual battle would’ve finished with Yi’s complete victory within two hours. They also emphasized that Korean forces were not in imminent danger as depicted in the film, but the director would’ve had no choice but to add more Korean casualties and moments of crisis to dramatize the battle scene in order to ramp up the tension for audiences.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]