“We made the film genuinely hoping to incur a sense of pride and self-esteem in the minds of the viewers; whether or not that will be relayed to the audience as much as it was eight years ago is up to fate,” director Kim Han-min told local reporters with gusto during an interview in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Thursday, ahead of the release of “Hansan: Rising Dragon,” the prequel to the country’s No. 1 box office hit “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (2014). The film is to hit local theaters on Wednesday.
Four days after the interview, it seems that the higher power is with Kim once more.
According to Lotte Entertainment on Monday, “Hansan: Rising Dragon” broke the record for most presale tickets sold in recent history, which was previously held by the Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019). With 147,909 in presales, it also beat the record set by this year’s most popular film, which was “The Roundup,” and the country’s second highest grossing film “Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds” (2017).
The films are part of director Kim’s trilogy depicting Yi Sun-shin (1545–1598), a victorious naval commander of the Korean fleet during the Imjin War (1592–98) in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The final film “Noryang” is expected to be released late this year or early next year.
“Hansan: Rising Dragon” takes place five years before the Battle of Myeongnyang (1597) which was depicted in “The Admiral: Roaring Currents.”
The new film revolves around Yi Sun-shin during the Battle of Hansan Island (1592), a two-day naval war between Joseon and the Japanese navy. It was the battle that earned Yi the title of one of the country’s most revered heroes. Destroying at least 59 Japanese warships, it is also considered one of the world’s greatest naval wars and the biggest victory that Joseon saw during the seven years of the Imjin War.
“To immerse the audience in Hansan Island’s historical naval battle against the Japanese fleet, we poured our souls into realistically depicting the philosophies of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the magnificence of geobukseon [Korean warships otherwise known as ‘turtle ships’], elaborate military strategies, intense psychological warfare between the admirals of Japan and Korea and the tension brought on by the mysterious yet ingenious mind of Admiral Yi,”
Recognizing the common criticism of local historical content that it exaggerates events to arouse nationalism, Kim stressed the film’s faithfulness to facts and the cast and crew’s reverence for Yi.
“If we simply used the subject of Yi Sun-shin to sell tickets, it would be criticized as a gukppong film,” he said. “What I want more than anything is to get all three films successfully out to the public and through them, relay a sense of comfort, courage, solidarity, and pride to the current society through this historical figure.”
Gukppong is a portmanteau of guk (nation) and ppong (slang for drugs), which likens a sense of national pride to an emotionally elated state after using drugs. It started as a pejorative term for chauvinism but now refers to national pride in general.
Actor Park Hae-il took on the role of Yi in “Hansan.” In “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” actor Choi Min-sik played Yi and in “Noyrang,” actor Kim Yun-seok will portray the national hero.
“After filming ‘The Admiral: Roaring Currents,’ actor Choi said that he felt he had given his all to this role,” said Kim. “I didn’t disagree because I wanted to respect his decision. As I considered casting a different person to play Yi Sun-shin in two other films, it occurred to me that the films would still work with different actors playing Yi Sun-shin, specifically because he was a real historical figure everyone knew. It may not have worked if we were portraying a fictional character that we were building from scratch.”
He continued, “For ‘Hansan,’ I wanted an actor who could portray the admiral’s resourcefulness, boldness, and wisdom. Actor Park Hae-il doesn’t leave people with a strong, warrior-like impression but he has this incredible inner strength that centers him. I thought that this quality of Park would be perfect for portraying Yi Sun-shin in ‘Hansan.’”
When Park was first offered the role of Yi, he was flummoxed.
“Me? Why me?” Park recalled his reaction to Kim’s offer two years ago and during the local press interview on Thursday in Jongno District, central Seoul. “The director laughed and told me that, yes, I wasn’t warrior-like like actor Choi Min-sik but that he thought I could show a different side of Yi Sun-shin — one that planned detailed strategies and collaborated with others to achieve an overwhelming victory.”
Park likened the difference between the admirals in the two films to the difference between fire and water.
“Through research, we found that Yi Sun-shin was a multifaceted person with many sides to his personality. If actor Choi Min-sik’s Yi Sun-shin had a robust, fire-like charisma, for mine, we wanted to recreate his wide, ocean-like mind of the admiral, along with his level-headedness amid conflict, disciplined attitude, and ingenuity,” said Park. “To get into this similar mental state, I visited the local temples and meditated to the sounds of nature and the temple’s bells.”
Park hoped Yi could become a character that enchants audiences around the world.
“I hope that ‘Hansan’ can be a movie that people all around the world can enjoy and that Yi Sun-shin becomes a figure who is more widely known throughout the world,” he said.
Director Kim added that the film bears historical significance not only in Korea but also in the world history of naval battles.
“The Battle of Hansan Island was an incredibly complex and advanced battle for its time and so much more than a simple crossing of maritime boundaries, and I think that our film convincingly recreated this battle scene,” said director Kim.
“Hansan” simultaneously opens in theaters in Korea, the United States and Canada on Wednesday.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]