The Admiral: Roaring Currents was a film that I never heard off, until I did research, and discovered it’s the highest grossing film in South Korea (as of now), and it the first South Korean film to make over 100 US million dollars internationally. Financially successful The Admiral: Roaring Currents is impressive on a business standpoint. From an artistic standpoint it also caught my attention. Since I live in the US, it’s weird learning that a country highest grossing film is not based on an established property, or an entry in a franchise. After learning this I looked up a trailer, and once again traits of a significant movie showed. It’s international appeal was evidence borrowing traits of a Hollywood blockbuster presenting the idea that this film is epic in emotions, epic in battles, and just historical epic filmmaking. So with my exposure to the film I decided to check it out since everything seemed in its favor. That is until the film start, and you realize beside being a expensive cinematic piece of Korean patriotism. It’s also a film that lacking in evoking epic emotions like what seen on screen.
The first hour of the film is meant to set up the characters, stakes, and provide context for the massive naval battle that will occupied the second half of the film. Unfortunately, instead of being the grand, historical epic film it desperately wants to be it comes across as a hollow blockbuster with a historical backdrop. One thing that is made immediately clear within the film is that it paints complex political issues into a simple battle of black, and white. Showering itself in national pride proudly portraying Koreans as the good guys, and showing the Japanese they fight as the villains. Given the premise down to the bare minimum is 12 Koreans ship battling 330 Japanese ships which is best comparable to the story of David, and Goliath. It’s quite the underdog setup that if it was presented morally grey could have resonated with any audience regardless of nationality.
In the film, it makes a clear case the Japanese are evil. A Korean character says in the film their enemy (the Japanese) steal their provisions from civilians, and use children for target practice. With this single scene the film throws away any intention of representing both side equally. It would be acceptable if it ended simply by showing Japanese killing children, but the film continues showing Japanese in a negative light. Characters aren’t better off either. You could deduce whatever Japanese character is in the film is going to be presented as evil. However, the Korean characters aren’t compelling either. The film the person is centered on, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-Sik), receives most of his characterization through text in the first two minutes of the film. Yi Sun-sin is touted as a double agent, is tortured, and remove from his position. Afterwards, he gets reinstated because the nation of Korea needs him if they want to lose to the Japanese. With this information being the first thing you learn about Yi Sun-sin where his character could have gone is intriguing alone. As you probably come to expect from me reviewing films of this quality it’s usually not the case. Sun-sin character receives traits like contemplation of his life, national pride, and to engage in the massive battle. These contemplative thoughts aren’t explored to any great depth. They get a mentioned in one scene, and then done.
Another character that ends up uneven is Lee Whe (Kwon Yool) who ends being the audience gateway to learn more about his father Yi Sun-sin. The conversations between these two character are the closest the film goes into character exploration. It’s easy characterization painting a clear picture of differing positions between the two. Seeing them interact with each other is interesting due to conflicting feelings on what should be done in the battle. Lee Whe understands his father, but doesn’t see the scenario in the same light he does. Leading to moments where Yi Sun-sin explains his reasoning to put his worries at ease. It display the strong bond between the two character to be able get along no the difference in thoughts in a dire situation. This relationship between father, and son never grows into anything emotionally gripping, nor tell the audience anything about Lee Whe as an individual. All of Lee Whe character is tied to what his father does in this current moment of his life so history between them not in this specific event, and time is not explored.
Finally, the last character worth mentioning is Im Joon-Young who is a spy for Yi Sun-sin (Jin Goon) who sole purpose is to gather intel on the enemy. Aside from showing a small glimpse of the Japanese oppressing the civilians of the land they conquered this is about as far as this character is taken. There’s a subplot of his possible deaf lover which would be something compelling to see, but the first time she appears on screen is to tell her man goodbye. There’s no flashbacks, or a scene where the two interact as a regular couple so it ends up being meaningless in the film narrative.
A major writing issue with the film is the Turtle Ship itself. In the film, it’s established that this ship is essential in Admiral Yi Sun-Shin strategy in fighting against a large vessel of 330 ships with his mere forces of 12 warships. What advantage, and capabilities the Turtle Ship has over a regular warship is never explained. One would think a crucial detail like that would at some point be discuss in the film. It would have been fine if the film mentioned if it had stronger armor, better canons, or anything that explains what it’s better than an average warship. It would have better correlated why Yi Sun-Shin is intent on battling with it, and so crucial in his plan.
The second half of the film consist of a massive naval battle, and yes it is awesome. It’s during this naval battle where the scale, the bombastic soundtrack, and overblown exaggerated drama create the film most engaging material. Becoming easy to lose yourself with the events of the film. Aspects of the naval battle itself are not without criticism. Like mentioned, the overblown drama during the battle is extraordinary. In the film, there’s a romance subplot that doesn’t get much attention so when that subplot conclusion comes narratively it is hollow in feelings. It also breaks character consistency since in one scene this character is shown doing sign language to talk to her lover, but during the naval battle knows what her lover is saying even he’s too far away from land to read his lips, and was presumed to be deaf. Another aspect of the battle is it will test your suspension of disbelief. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin virtually beats more ships then he likely would have as his ship survives one unlikely scenario after another. The most over the top example comes when Admiral Yi Sun-Shin ship is corner from three sides, and Sun-Shin has the idea to use canon fire to propel his ship away from being cornered. Describing this moment is far different from actually seeing it for yourself. Whether or not it’s possible for such a thing to happen I can’t comment on since I’m no physicist.
Despite the numerous issues with the extensive naval battle itself I would still defend it for being the best part of the film. Unlike the previous hour, this naval battle is focus, and gets everything right in creating a thrilling atmosphere. There’s no talk of politics. Just a epic battle that engulfs itself with extreme emotions, and patriotism. It also uses simple moments like citizens witnessing the battle itself, and reacting to it to further get lost in the moments of battle. These moments eventually correlate into an morally uplifting scene for the Koreans, and a boosting excitement for non-Korean viewers. The very lengthy naval battle in this film will go down in film history as one of the best ever filmed. Now I might as well talked what happens after the naval battle since I more or less cover the entire movie story. If it ended with the moment between father, and son, the film rating wouldn’t have changed, but the actual ending will leave some scratching their head as to why that was the closing moment the film ended on. Since nothing was established about the Turtle Ship seeing one in action doesn’t scream excitement unless you know about the Turtle Ship.
The film stars Choi Min-sik as Admiral Yi Sun-sin who is a terrific actor in general. In this film he puts another top notch performance. He gives his character more complexity than the actual writing itself. A simple gesture of Min-sik delaying an immediate response tells the audience there’s a lot on this person’s mind. Min-sik plays the role seriously embodying his character perfectly inspiring his men with his words to keep fighting, bold in displaying a man hardened by war, and portraying a person who reputation doesn’t make him a larger than life figure. While the film is an extraordinary underdog story Choi Min-sik portrayal of Admiral Yi Sun-sin keeps him as human as possible. So no matter what extreme scenario the character survives Choi Min-sik performance makes it easy to accept. Also, he’s Choi Min-sik, if any Korean actor deserves one film that tells everyone “I’m awesome” it’s him.
Known Yool is decent in the role of Lee Whe. His chemistry with Choi Min-sik is excellent with both actors working great of each other. Known Yool is more varied in his expressions compare to Choi Min-sik because of the material he’s given. While good, Yool doesn’t embodied his character the same way Choi Min-sik does whom he shares many scenes with. Jin Goon is okay in his role as Im Joon-Young. He doesn’t leave much of an impression because of screen time, though his shining moment is during the naval battle. Now I do like to spend time talking about as many actors as possible so they too can get credit even if the contribution is small, though this film does me no favor. Cho Jin-Woong, Ryoo Seung-Ryong, and Kim Myung-Gon are all Korean actors playing Japanese characters speaking in the Japanese language incorrectly. The Korean actors don’t make the proper pronunciation of Japanese words when speaking as sometime within the same pronounce the same words differently. It’s quite jarring, though largely will go unnoticed for those who don’t watch many films from Asia. The remaining important actors includes the likes of Kim Tae-Hoon, No Min-Woo, Ryohei Otani, Park Bo-Gum, and Lee Jung-Hyun whom all give one note performances. One has to be silent, another has to be the concern lover, and another has to be angry. With their simple portrayals they won’t live much of an impression.
The film’s director, Kim Han-Min, did an excellent job overall. His only major criticism in his direction is misusing composer Tae-Seong Kim bombastic soundtrack in the whole film. When nothing narratively, or visually impactful is happening Kim Han-Min will have Tae-Seong music playing in it. Moments that could have been effective without music lose their impact. However, in the second half the usage of music is spot on. Another aspect of Kim Han-Min direction is spot is the naval battle itself. CG is noticeable, but for the most part keeps the action up close. Despite the large scale of the battle never once does Han-Min makes the audience become confused in what’s going on. He always creative in bringing in new ideas into the naval battle making sure it never becomes boring. This naval battle is probably going to be the technical achievement of his career. Another aspect worth praising is the film stellar cinematography bringing to life some memorable images, and the sets, and costume designs are good as well.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents is an epic film without equally sweeping engagement. As an historical film it simplifies the actual events into good vs evil. There’s no shame in the film hiding patriotism, nor the unequal portrayal of the enemies. Along with with story pieces, and character that don’t have much to them to captivate the viewers before the massive naval battle ensues. These aspects of the film will test audiences forgiveness for its writing shortcomings. If you take it as a piece of entertainment you might find it a decent diversion with the naval battle being the clear highlight of the film. No matter what way you might decide to view the film from there’s no escaping it could have ended up better, though maybe years from now a filmmaker will use this film as a template to make the masterpiece it couldn’t become.