Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) was a revered Korean military commander, but after a Japanese plot involving false intelligence left him looking like a traitor he was relieved of duty and tortured by the men he had previously served and fought beside. The government’s attitude changes though when a second Japanese invasion heads towards their shores in 1597. The invaders sink most of the Korean navy and aim their forces for the capital, Joseon, leading a reluctant king to reinstate Yi as their last hope of fending off the enemy.
He has his work cut out for him as only twelve ships remain in his ocean-going arsenal, a number that pales beside the 300+ Japanese vessels heading their way, but with the right strategy and the right location one man can fend off thousands. Well, that’s his working theory anyway.
The Admiral — also known as the far more accurate and descriptive Roaring Currents outside of the U.S. — is a new South Korean film that tackles a legendary true tale from the Joseon Dynasty period, and it does so with historical detail and cinematic flair. In a way it splits those two attributes evenly into two halves of the film, and while both have their strengths they’re equally balanced by somewhat minor issues.
Yi is known for his strong use of strategy, but his most successful gambit involves structurally-reinforced “turtle” ships that withstand assault and impact when they ram the enemy. The problem facing him now though is an absence of those ships. None of the twelve in his fleet fit the bill, and a race against the clock to build one ends in disaster due to sabotage from within. That incident is fueled by the doubt and lack of conviction felt by his men as the Japanese sail closer, but even as his own superiors begin to question the king’s faith in Yi he stands strong in his belief that victory favors the strategically prepared.
The dangerous and constantly shifting waters of Myeongnyang Strait is where he prepares that strategy and where he and his men face off against the Japanese navy. Included among the invading fleet are ships led by another legend in his own right, Kurushima (Ryu Seung-ryong in a wonderfully ominous and charismatic performance), an intense and bloodthirsty “pirate” brought in specifically to deal with Yi. Cannons, rifles and bows fire across the waves, swords slice through the sea air and soon the waters are roiled with splintered wood and spilled blood.
Director Kim Han-min‘s film honors the characters, both real and imagined, by spending time on both sides at various levels before the battle commences. We see men making poor decisions alongside others offered no choice in the matter and see the result of both in the bodies that pile up at the survivors’ feet. One particularly gruesome scene sees the Japanese military’s habit of beheading the enemy brought vividly to life as a boat arrives on the Korean shore loaded with hundreds of heads belonging to Korean soldiers. The chaos, sadness and defeat that engulfs the remaining men and families is as effective as a bomb blast.
While these side stories and characters are brought to life in minor fashion — including Yi’s son and a scout with a deaf/mute wife waiting at home — the film belongs to Yi. Happily Choi inhabits the character fully bringing a powerful fury to the man while still allowing him to show the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. “If you desire life you will surely die,” he tells his men in the film’s Braveheart moment. “And if you fight to the death then you shall surely live.” It’s rah-rah material, but it works both in the film and on the audience.
The film’s greatest strength aside from Choi is the battle scenes in part because there really are so few sea-set war films made these days. Much of the large scale action is accomplished and assisted with CGI — something that works as often as it doesn’t — but Kim also had a handful of life-size ship replicas made allowing for some fantastic closer-in action. Cannon blasts send wood chips and bodies scattering, and boarding parties see desperate man to man fights flailing violently, falling between ships and littering the decks. It’s all accompanied by a fantastically rousing score as well that keeps attention and excitement high.
Some sketchy CGI interrupts the fun on a few occasions, but it’s the script that feels more unfortunate at times. The film introduces far too many players, especially on the Japanese side, without giving them enough to do. The end result is a parade of faces that leave viewers struggling to recall what their specific beef is here. It’s a minor struggle to be sure, but it’s there. The film also heavily implies that both Korean and Japanese people have bionic vision and hearing. Most of us can’t recognize a face across a room, but these folks are doing so across thousands and thousands of yards of open water.
The Admiral feels a bit cluttered in its first half as numerous players on both sides move in and out of frame, but the final sixty minutes are thrilling, wonderfully dramatic and move the film towards the top of the (unfortunately short) list of sea-set war films.
The Upside: Choi Min-sik gives a powerful and charismatic performance; impressive action and production design; ass-kicking monks
The Downside: First half feels overly complicated at times; some dodgy CGI; Asian bionics
On the Side: The film recently passed the records for most tickets sold in South Korea with over fourteen million admissions. This beats the previous best for Korean films (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host) and films overall (Avatar).