The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The Admiral: Roaring Currents is currently playing in limited release. Check out our interview with Choi Min-sik.
The battle of Myeongnyang is a touchstone in the Korean national consciousness. For Americans it would be something like Bunker Hill (though the closest analogue in history would be Salamis, where a small Athenian fleet repelled the massive navy of the Persians). It’s no wonder then that director Lee Han-Min would want to give the battle the epic blockbuster treatment. And The Admiral: Roaring Currents certainly soars big, with some impressive action not hampered by the obviously modest budget. Overall, though, the film lacks the punch necessary to make it memorable.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents certainly soars big, with some impressive action not hampered by the obviously modest budget.
In the late 16th Century Korea faced a series of invasions from Japan, during which the invaders made several attempts to push toward the Korean capital. One of the most credible of these threats came in 1597 when the Japanese attacked a Korean army in disarray. Hoping to press their advantage, the Japanese sent a fleet of nearly 150 ships to meet their land army. The only thing standing in the way of certain Japanese victory was the tattered Korean navy, led by famed admiral Yi Sun-shin, who had recently been deposed and reinstated. Using verve and superior tactics, Yi defeated the invading navy with a “fleet” of twelve ships. Twelve. Not a typo.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents plays as something of a tale of two halves. The first part of the film follows a wide array of characters as they plot, scheme, and prepare for the coming battle. Honestly the cast gets a little too large at times; I found myself confused at points about which Japanese commanders were which (the geographical jumping that occurs with little explanation did not help matters for someone not acquainted with the finer points of Korean geopolitical layout). In brief, we meet several leaders of the invading force (including a bloodthirsty pirate called upon specifically for his brutality) and several of the important Korean figures, including Yu Sun-shin himself, played by certified badass Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy fame).
As the Japanese iron out the details of their invasion and seek to intimidate the Koreans, Yu must attempt to rally his troops to the daunting task of fending off the invaders with next to no support. His men urge him to retreat, but he insists on holding fast, even when his special weapon, the turtle ship (a fearsome warship designed for ramming) gets burned to ashes. As should be expected, Choi Min-sik nails the part of Yu, making him at once stoic and secretly tender. The scenes he shares with his son, who urges the old man to reconsider his loyal service that has been met with contempt, are especially touching. His performance helps carry along an uneven first half.
Given the massive scale and exciting premise of the battle itself, it should come as little surprise that The Admiral spends the entire second half of its two hour running time depicting the battle in loving detail.
Given the massive scale and exciting premise of the battle itself, it should come as little surprise that The Admiral spends the entire second half of its two hour running time depicting the battle in loving detail. This gambit works to an extent. I’m a sucker for naval battles, and Han-Min does a good job with the complex logistics of the conflict. He effectively conveys the sweep of the battle without making the action too confusing. Naval battles that are fun to watch usually incorporate both ship to ship and hand to hand combat, and Han-Min alternates between the two with aplomb, building tension through the variety.
Unfortunately the emphasis on swashbuckling has real negative effects on the film as well. After a while even well staged action sequences get exhausting if they go on uninterrupted, and an hour straight in the strait left me yearning for dry land. Worse, the constant action cuts the film off entirely from what little mooring its first half had in human interest. Sure, the characters encountered before the battle get checked in on periodically, but since little was done to establish them as more than stock characters, their fates feel preordained and dull. There’s the young couple torn apart by war, the coward who learns to be brave, and other tropes awaiting fleshing out. Yu Sun-shin is the only character who feels well developed, and in the second half of the film even he is constrained by the setting to looking grim and grunting.
There’s enough good stuff in The Admiral: Roaring Currents to make it worth checking out, especially for Americans looking to expand their views of history a little. But in the end the film, despite an interesting premise and a fine lead performance, sinks under the weight of its too-familiar action beats.
Though anchored by a fine Choi Min-sik performance, The Admiral: Roaring Currents cannot navigate its way through the treacherous waters of tired historical action cliches.