The Admiral – Roaring Currents (Myeong-ryang)
Korea (2014) Dir. Kim Han-Mim
To score a guaranteed box office success a film about a legendary national hero is a good way to go. For South Korean this epic retelling of his most famous victory for 16th century naval commander Yi Sun-sin broke all Korean box office records.
At the centre of this story is the Battle of Myeongnyang which took place in late 1597 as Korea struggled against the second Japanese invasion, with the Japanese closing in on the capital Hanyang (now called Seoul). The man who masterminded earlier Korean victories, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-Sik), jailed after being framed as a spy by a double agent was reinstated by the king. With time running out and able fighting men at a premium, Yi leads a small armada of just thirteen ships into battle against thirty of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s three hundred plus ships.
Ostensibly this is a naval version of the classic David vs. Goliath yarn set on the stormy waters surrounding a Korean peninsula, yet also a celebration of the “brains over brawn” maxim, albeit with plenty of brawn also included. I say “ostensibly” as this film does little to inculcate international viewers about Admiral Yi’s life or career prior to this fateful battle, while domestic viewers will already be well versed in this.
Aside from the brief note at the beginning mentioning Yi’s wrongful imprisonment and the fact he has a son Oh-Duk (Ko Gyung-Pyo) who appears later on, we can only discern from his actions and leadership skills what kind of man he is and why he earned the reputation and reverence he did. This makes the first act a bit of trek to get through in terms of understanding the basic set up but, of course, once the action takes over in the second half it doesn’t really matter.
This is not dismiss this is as all explosions and no emotion – quite the opposite in fact; despite his stoic demeanour and strict disciplinarian commanding style, Yi is very wary of the human cost of a war. His words may often contradict this, his pre-battle motivational speech advises his men not to worry about living but to fight to the death, which actually has merit – the results certainly don’t lie.
While Yi and the Koreans are left somewhat under-developed as characters it is with some irony that the Japanese invaders are given more time to be established with the audience. Played by Korean actors (I don’t know if any Japanese actors were approached to appear but then again who would blame them for declining), the Japanese generals can’t even seem to get along with each other which makes strategy meetings a bit awkward. Despite not being genuine nationals, the cast are very convincing as Japanese and have the dialogue in this foreign language down pat.
Causing the most problems is General Michifusa Kurushima (Ryu Seung-ryeong), sent by Chancellor Hideyoshi to aid current commander Takatora Todo (Kim Myeong-gon) who plans to claim the glory of capturing Korea. Kurushima is a bloodthirsty tough nut with an ulterior motive of his own, to personally avenge the death of his brother during Yi’s last victory – even Todo is afraid to get in his way on that one.
With the Japanese so well fleshed out it is rather remiss of writer-director Kim Han-Mim to have the central Korean hero not given more exploration. Some of his actions are a tad rough – he beheads a deserter to send a message to his men – which required some background knowledge of his personality for the audience to reconcile this, but with the tone being very nationalistic maybe it was felt surplus to requirement for the domestic audience.
However Kim played a blinder by casting the eximious Choi Min-Sik in the role of Yi, whose sheer gravitas and physical presence fives us plenty of clues as to what sort of man Yi was. Determined, pokerfaced and a genius tactician Choi’s essaying of Yi presents us with an old sea dog who teaches himself some new tricks while possessing the innate ability to instil loyalty and respect from (most) of his men, and not just by getting stuck in on the action front himself.
Matching Choi for intensity and dogmatic drive, Ryu Seung-ryeong makes for a terrifying General Kurushima, creating a fearful persona that appears bigger than his elaborate war armour already makes him. The support cast features many familiar and not so familiar faces but everyone plays their part with the usual aplomb and dedication found in Asian cinema.
Saving the best for last, the actual battle takes up the most part of the second hour and is a spectacle befitting such an epic tale. With the acclaimed period action flick War Of The Arrows to his credit, director Kim knows how to stage a decent big scale battle, and he has made the upgrade from big to ginormous with great success. The time given to this clash is used wisely, depicting the highs and lows and strategic interludes, while keeping us fully engaged and emotionally invested by the pluck of the defending Korean fleet.
Credit to the effects team for their smooth mixture of CGI and practical effects, only the “bullet time” cannonball spots were obvious. The live size floating structures are impressively built and truthful to the design of the period, neatly demonstrating the size difference between the mammoth Japanese warships and the humble Korean vessels. When not blasting each other to bits, some one on one combat occurs with a typically Korean violent bent including some gory beheadings. Oh yes, this isn’t one for the kiddies.
The first hour of The Admiral – Roaring Currents is admittedly a little uneven for those unfamiliar with the history of Admiral Yi but the main draw is the action and we are richly rewarded with a stonker of sea battle. Flaws aside this is a gloriously well-made period epic.