AKA: Roaring Currents
Director: Kim Han-min
Writer: Jeon Cheol-hong, Kim Han-min
Cast: Choi Min-Sik, Ryu Seung-Ryong, Jo Jin-Woong, Kim Myung-Gon, Jin Gu, Lee Jung-Hyun, Kwon Yul, Ryohei Otani, Lee Seung-Jun, Kim Gang-Il, No Min-Woo
Running Time: 127 min.
By Kyle Warner
Admiral Yi Sun-shin is remembered as one of Korea’s greatest heroes. In the 1590s, Japan invaded Korea with the intention of conquering the country and expanding its empire. By 1597, the Japanese were winning the war and were marching north towards the capital. Admiral Yi only had a dozen remaining ships by which to defend his waters, so he was ordered to retreat and defend the capital. However, Admiral Yi disobeyed his orders and led his dozen ships against hundreds of Japanese ships in a desperate last stand in the treacherous Myeongnyang Strait. Apparently until recently it was believed that Korean filming techniques and special effects would be unable to recreate the famed Battle of Myeongyang. And perhaps it was a good thing they waited. For while I found The Admiral: Roaring Currents to be a deeply flawed film, the naval battles are thrilling and technically impressive, calling to mind the great action sequences of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents is a film split into two distinct halves. The first half is all preparation, posturing, and historical melodrama. Those unfamiliar with the time and place may be a little lost in this section of the film, as writer/director Kim Han-min (War of the Arrows) does little to make sense of the conflict for the uninitiated. Many of the finer details about the war and Admiral Yi’s battle plan are left unsaid or undeveloped. As a result, I only got a general idea of the conflict, and Admiral Yi’s genius appeared more like good luck and stubbornness. I thought the characters were lacking definition. Other than Admiral Yi (played by Choi Min-sik) and a few of the Japanese generals (all played by Korean actors), no one here stands out enough to be memorable, which leads to some confusion about who’s who later on in the picture. Worst of all, we also get some silly melodrama.
The second half of the film is essentially one long naval battle sequence. Admiral Yi leads his dozen ships against hundreds of Japanese and puts up one hell of a fight. The special effects are impressive, and it’s easy to get caught up in the action. These scenes are often thrilling — sometimes a little beyond belief, but still thrilling nonetheless. Coupled with the visuals is a strong musical score and sound design. Watching The Admiral in 5.1 surround sound on the biggest screen possible makes for a pretty epic film experience. Unfortunately, the sappy character drama is still present in the second half, which weakens the action instead of bolstering it.
Ryu Seung-ryong (The Target) plays the Pirate King Kurushima, who leads the attack against Admiral Yi. Ryu isn’t so much playing an enemy general as he is playing a supervillain trapped in historical dress. Around his glaring eyes is thick, black eye shadow. Other Japanese characters get eye shadow, too, but Ryu’s Kurushima definitely has the most. Because in The Admiral, the more evil you are, the more eye shadow you get. Kurushima’s personal guard, an androgynous ninja (No Min-woo), is always tilting his head to the side like a lizard, and others under Kurushima’s command are basic barbarians. Just in case you forget they’re supposed to be the bad guys.
The only female character of note is a soldier’s deaf wife (played by pop star Lee Jung-hyun). She’s not a complete character, though, as she only shows up to enhance the drama of her husband’s struggle in the war. When she attempts to communicate via sign language, Lee looks so awkward and frenzied it’s like she’s having a fit. But again, anything for more drama! Later on in the film, Lee and other peasants rise to assist Admiral Yi’s soldiers. I think it’s meant to be a tearjerker moment, but it’s just so over-the-top that I found it silly. Scenes like this are just cheap ways to go for the emotions. After The Admiral and War of the Arrows (a film I enjoyed more, though it suffered some of the same issues), I think that Kim is impressive when it comes to filming action, but he needs to rethink how he’s directing drama. There were scenes in The Admiral that required a gentle hand but it’s like Kim showed up with a sledgehammer and figured, what’s the difference?
Choi Min-sik was good. Choi Min-sik is always good. While everyone else is yelling and screaming, Choi gives us a performance of controlled stillness. Admiral Yi is a larger than life character, and I think a lesser actor would’ve either frozen or overacted in the role. The film gets a little better every time he’s on screen.
So, is a strong performance from one of Asia’s finest actors and some well-done action enough to overcome a poorly written screenplay and some questionable direction? Not in this viewer’s opinion. That being said, Choi Min-sik and the epic action are likely the reason you’re interested in the film in the first place. Considering this, I think you could say that The Admiral gives you exactly what you came for, but never manages to give you much else.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents arrives on Blu-ray from CJ Entertainment. We get both Korean and English language tracks. The sound is exceptional, I thought. The picture presents great color and fine detail. In fact, the picture is so good it shows the flaws in the poor makeup and hair. You can’t unsee all those fake mustaches. As for special features, the only one of note is a 5 minute “making of” featurette. 5 minutes isn’t much time to cover such an epic production, but one point that’s made repeatedly clear is how proud the actors and crew are to be involved in the telling of this story.
When The Admiral: Roaring Currents was released in South Korea it made some Avatar money, going on to become the country’s biggest box office hit of all time. Now that I know a little bit more about Admiral Yi and the importance of the Battle of Myeongnyang, I can understand why the film registered with so many viewers in Korea. However, as an American filmgoer, I can only view The Admiral as a film. And as a film, I found it heavily flawed, thanks mostly to a complete lack of subtlety on behalf of the film’s director. If there had been less sappy melodrama and some better character development before we got to the action in the second half, The Admiral might’ve been a historical epic that the whole world connected with. As it is, I think The Admiral is likely to appeal to its domestic audience and some history buffs, but will leave many of the rest of us only mildly entertained.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5.5/10