Admiral Yi Sun-shin was an astonishing naval commander who, despite political persecution, personal tragedy, illness, and imprisonment, managed to successfully halt the Japan's invasion of Korea during the end of the 16th century. Toyotomi Hideyoshi's (Japan's 'great unifier') dreamt of expanding Japan's empire and needed Joseon to secure a solid foothold to mount an attack against the mighty Ming.
Hideyoshi was denied free passage for his forces across the Korean mainland (King Seonjo and his cabinet thought that allowing the Japanese to cross unmolested would result in Korea being bloody battleground between their powerful neighbours), and so amassed a force and fleet and began their Invasion of Korea (1592-1598).
The war itself was broken into two invasions, both of which placed great strategic importance on control of the seas (particular routes along Korea's west coast). During the second invasion, Admiral Won Gyun suffered a devastating lose against Todo Takatora and his generals at the definitive Battle of Chilcheollyang (1597). It was a crippling blow to Korea's defensive hopes, but all was not lost.
Two months later Admiral Yi Sun-shin would stand (without the court's support) with Korea's last thirteen remaining ships against a confident Japanese armada more than ten times its size. Like King Leonidas waiting at the Hot Gates, Yi choose his preferred battleground brilliantly, the Myeongnyang Strait.
In "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" Kim imagines Yi's most famous and glorious victory at the Battle of Myeongnyang. Yi was hampered throughout his career by political dissident and was often targeted by power players for his outspoken manner and methods. He was arrested, jailed, and tortured on a number of occasions (the film's opening exposition and first half paints the picture of a tired hero fighting forces both within and against Joseon), but after Won Gyun's epic fail at Chilcheollyang Korea's awesome admiral resolved to deny the Japanese further passage over his element of choice. They fear him, and with good reason.
Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) has just returned from his miserable trip to capital and is rallying his crew and supplies around the south-west coast of Korea. The Joseon courts are calling for him to concede the straight and join forces with the army in order to consolidate power; his men, while proud to serve under him, too question the sanity of standing against such a fleet and beg him to reconsider his play; his son appeals to him as a father, and requests that he retire for his health (and to bury his recently deceased mother); and, more personally, our Admiral is found evaluating his own accomplishments and his commitment to the people of Korea. These are just some of the weights bearing down on this giant of the sea, but like most geniuses in history he was committed and confident his cause was just and honourable.
The first half of the film deals with the above pressures; it sets the historical stage, introduces and charges the power players, establishes personal conflicts, as well as the greater stakes of the battle to come. Tearing a page out of history and adapting it to screen invariable demands sacrifices, shortcuts, and some cinematic sugar, and I'm always cautious to 'judge' a film based on how closely it sticks to said records.
So what the first half really attempts to do is instill a wider purpose to the epic battle that soon follows, but it was here that the film's efforts were arguably over-influenced by period-piece convention and coating. Melodramatic and somewhat stagnant, the first half does not so much show Yi's character development (he is, after all, a character of conviction rather change), but his personal suffering, the obstacles leading up to the battle. Fair enough, but what I saw during this time was a ghost of man living in a hero's husk waiting To Be Reborn in battle, a birth that, despite the coming glory, seemed stillborn; unnecessarily messy and muted.
This first half, also and to be fair, paints a rather intimidating picture of the Japanese, especially their terrifying fleet commander Admiral Gurujima (played by Ryu Seung-ryong; who, as far as I can tell, was one of the fictional characters created): a ruthless strategist rumoured to have once been a pirate who seems like the perfect antithesis to Yi's just moral compass.
It is during this half of the film that it drifts into gaudy costumes, noticeably stagey backdrops, and dry dialogue that added little to (if not subtracted form) the tale being told. Once the sails were raised, however, it was hard not to get swept away in the wash of tightly choreographed action and to see Yi the tactician peek out of his stoic shell and take command.
The battle is complex and fascinating, and while the special effects up until this point were marginally acceptable, here there was little to distract me from the epic event in question. For the rest of the film viewers are treated to Kim's depiction of one of Korea's most admired and celebrated figures at the top of his game, a bloody battle against astonishing odds on which history's own path pivoted. It's load and spectacular, and the battle was (as in reality) broken down into various 'waves', each handled with a great eye for destruction, chaos, and glory.
During one particularly potent beat Yi's own ship is completely surrounded by the enemy, and the Japanese are flooding the decks from all sides with much resistance. Yi seems to be able to filter out the frantic fury of his predicament, and orders that canons be taken below deck, clustered together for effect, and fired from one side of the ship. The explosion is so splendid that the locals watching from the shore, the Korean fleet, and the Japanese themselves all believe Yi has finally been sunk. It's a mighty move by Yi that keeps our modern cinematic sensibilities in mind, and instances such as this made for some unforgettable movie moments.
There are no real surprises here, and so where such historically inspired features thrive is in their ability to visualise the event, empathise with the characters, and to entertain (the film pocketed over $122 million, making it the highest grossing Korean film of all time having surpassed Bong Joon-ho's "The Host"). "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" managed two of these three: Kim's images were cinematic and, at times, truly spectacular, the film was highly entertaining (a real 'movie movie' if you will, trying not too hard to swim upstream or to drown us in pure spectacle), but as far as offering an empathetic angle on Yi was concerned it was sunk by our hero's cold stoicism and overly contemplative demeanour.
While there were revealing moments where Yi was forced out of his contemplative cave, overall Yi's character appear somewhat resigned to his own 'inner cabin' of thoughts and pressures. All we see is the result of his contemplation, and we're not the only ones who were left in the dark. Even Yi's own men and generals appear to have been left largely uninformed, and look surprised at every call this sea dog makes at the helm (surely a little pre-battle chatter would have occurred to prepare?). The up side to this was that the battle itself was perhaps as surprising to us as it must have been for the Japanese (or Yi's captains), but such a 'reveal' came as the cost of internal logic and much-needed empathy.
Empathy with Yi may have been lacking, but where and how the filmmaker's tried to counterbalance that lack was interesting. Yes the film is about the heroic exploits of one man (or at least stands as the story's spine), but the filmmaker's also tried (hard) to give us access to a part of history that doesn't always get written, namely the role of Korean slaves and civilians.
Yi was reportedly a man of the people, and sought to ensure their livelihood wherever possible. There are moments throughout the film whereby Kim hands over power to those unsung heroes who didn't make it into the historians' accounts. Yi's rowers are asked on a couple occasions to perform some important roles in the heat of battle (out of necessity, to be sure), the Korean slaves serving the Japanese are also so framed and their suffering captured, and there is even a side character (a messenger and family man) who sacrifices himself for the cause. Such inclusions were hit and miss, and while they did not directly reflect on Yi himself, they did serve a largely untold dimension to what is otherwise a chapter dedicated to one man and his moment.
Kim Han-min's "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" is a spectacular event that depicts one of world's greatest naval strategist during his finest hour. His story is fascinating in its own right, but what Kim has produced here is a fitting and fine rendition of Korea's most celebrated champion of the sea. All aboard, indeed.
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